Hugging Under the Shadow of Aggravated Manslaughter

How I came to hug a homeless man previously in jail for aggravated manslaughter.


First off, my heart goes out to all those in France and around the world being innocently murdered. With all that is going on, this post comes with even more bizarre feelings. The short of it is I met a homeless guy last night, he said he was previously in jail for aggrevated manslaughter, I had a whole pep talk with him, and I hugged him during our chat and at the end. Here are some of my thoughts as I wrote them up last night while on the train, and revised a bit today.

Setting the Scene

Sitting cross-legged on the floor here waiting for the F-train. Another one of those pretty wild experiences. First song on spotify that just came up, “Superheroes” by The Script. The lyrics especially powerful in context of this.

As I was walking to the train about 30 min ago, my dad called and relayed how at the end of his run today he came across a man lying unresponsive on the sidewalk pavement. I’ve gone on weekly Saturday runs with my dad for many years. The most action we ever have are dogs off leashes. My dad called 911, and the long story short (because I only know the short story as of now) the guy was completely wasted and passed out. The story reminded me of the homeless person who passed out a couple weeks ago. What I didn't know is I'd have another homeless person encounter coming my way.

So now as I enter the subway, I walk down to the F-train, and by a turn in the steps in the stairwell, I see an older-looking homeless man holding out his hands. I checked my empty pockets, but I didn’t have my cards on me. I then put down my bag in the stairwell, and kept searching.

I looked at the man while I continued to rummage through my backpack. There was something about this man’s demeaner that struck me. He looked rather frail, with a bit of a scraggly beard on his chin. He seemed like he was shivering ever so slightly. Perhaps it was the extraordinarily patient way in which he held his hands. I’m not sure.

I don’t know if the guy thought I was searching for money, for a lost item, or what. But anyway, I had a pencil, found a paper on the stairs, and wrote down my email. I explained to him (I later learned his name was “Zee”) that I’ve worked with different nonprofits and that I might be able to connect him to people that may help. I also gave him a little bag of mixed nuts that I had on me.

Learning about the Aggrevated Manslaughter

I could’ve left it at that, or maybe with a few more words (as I do most of the time, respecting their space). But for some reason, something about this man made him seem different. Yesterday (or the day before), for example, I spoke to one guy who said he was a homeless vet looking for money for a bus ticket (I forget to where), he said he’s been panhandling for a while. Now, that could be true, but aside from my own skepticism given the interaction, the “bus ticket" claim is apparently a classical ploy (at least according to the head of a big homeless vet team--for a longer conversation). Regardless, not my place to judge, and I’m sure there are some out there who may be true.

As opposed to the homeless ‘vet’, though, this guy wasn’t actively trying to court money with a cup, nor was he just sleeping. He just seemed resigned with his hands out, as if he was in a perpetual state sighing.

And so I asked the guy more about his situation to see if I could help. He said he used to be in NJ, but “couldn’t make it” there, and came to NYC. I then told him how I believed in him, and how he had to not just believe —but know that he could make it.

The wild part is that during this (towards the beginning of the chat) I asked him where he was before all this went down. He said jail. A bit later I then asked how it all happened, and he said aggravated manslaughter. He spent 17 years in jail. He didn’t blame the system, he didn’t blame anyone. I guess he had accepted his lot in life.

And just for reference, according to NJ code N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a:

A person is guilty of aggravated manslaughter if he/she recklessly causes the death of another person under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life.

I can't really think of what incentive he would have to tell me that he was doing time for aggrevated manslaughter. I guess in theory it could have been worse (although he likely wouldn't have gotten out). If he wanted to try to con me for money, he could've made up some story, and I'd never find out. It's not something you expect someone to say unless they are just being frank. He didn't say sorry. He just went with it, with his resigned attitude.

I was stunned by his words, yet I still continued to chat. Despite what he told me, I guess I still saw a human being behind the henious act claimed to have committed. I asked him what he wanted to do. He said “just get by”—that’s all he’s trying to do. He was going from shelter to shelter.

The Coach Comes Out

I suppose it was his look of almost as if he was giving up—but still hanging on—that my personal trainer / coach side came out in full strength. Sometime in our chat I then pivoted and asked him more specifically what his goals were. “A nice apartment / house and a job,” he told me. I told him that in order to work towards a goal, like anyone, gotta take steps to work there. I gave some examples. I told him how I was a coach, and how all I try to do is turn that switch from I can't to I can, and he could turn the switch on as well. But if he didn’t want to get out and change things, then things likely would just remain the same. (And at some point, I referenced the Steve Jobs' quote that everything in life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.)

He told me how it’s been hard with his criminal record to hold a job. Even when he said that, though, there was no blame. Just this sense of acceptance for his lot in life. I told him about employment for people convicted, and the different things out there. I told him that I was talking to him because he is still a human, like the rest of us. A human with incredible potential. I told him how I cared for him. (I think this might have been one of the times I hugged him.)

I guess I never really expected I’d ever be consoling and giving a pep talk to a homeless person who spent 17 years for aggravated manslaughter.

I told him he must think I’m the craziest dude he’s ever talked to. He didn’t think so, and he mentioned how much he appreciated the chat. He said he’s never had someone stop to talk like this. And it occurred to me after that he probably hasn’t had many people spend a genuine 10 minutes with him in the past couple of decades.

And the biggest barrier to the change, I was telling Zee, is your own mindset. He would need to not only believe in his ability to be a better person—like we should all strive for—he would need to know that he could.

“I just wanna make it,” he said. And I hear that, but that's not enough. You gotta work towards a goal beyond hopping from shelter to shelter.

Not wanting to come off as some privaleged kid ignorant of my own good fortune, and oblivious to the reality of others, I told him how I was the lucky one to grow up as I did. I acknowledged how things were working against him, and are not in his favor. Things would be hard as hell for him. It’s not about being blinded to the reality. But he could do it. He shouldnt be blinded to the hope. Flipping the switch from I can't to I can is hard as hell, but he can. If he doesn’t want to, it won’t happen.

And so, I left things at that. I told him to contact me if he wanted. Gave him a hug for the second time, and said goodbye.

Joy from Jamaica

Now, sitting down by the train, I started to think about what had just gone down. In the moment, it seemed rather normal, albeit a rather emotional and passionately charge 10-15 min.

What was so odd reflecting on the conversation was how I was drawn in by his acceptance of the status quo. And that was I think what fired me up, my belief that things can be changed. As a multipsport coach for several years, my job was similarly showing people how you might not think you can do "x", but you can work towards it to make that a a reality. (And the world has many problems, but we can fix that, too.)

Yet, I couldn’t help but think of how he said he was in jail for aggravated manslaughter. He might have ripped apart a family, left children without a father or mother, who knows. I didn’t ask—it didn’t matter at that point for me. But the chat left me impassioned and a bit confused.

I guess I was just bewildered about the whole thing. And as I was writing all this on the train, I asked Joy, a nice lady from Jamaica sitting next to me, her thoughts on this.

She said that its not his fault and we can’t judge. We don’t know what really happened. Sometimes things happen thats is not in our control. She mentioned how we really don’t know what happened to him, and sometimes the court judges wrongfully. Sometimes, she said “the person who should’ve been outside is inside, and someone who is inside is outside.” We don’t know what happened to him, she stressed again.

[At this point as we chat, I notice one headphone earpiece is still on, and Union of Blessid Souls, I Believe” is playing. One of the most powerful songs I know.]

She said I should’ve interviewed him, perhaps to try to hear his side story. I guess for me, it didn’t seem like my place then. But maybe. I don’t know.

Perhaps what was comforting for my more confused emotional state was that some random person on the subway was so open and thoughtful, willing to chat and give her thoughts on this.

Culpability Digression

Some people might say, you did the right thing, what happened to Zee is not his fault. He might have been abused as a child, crazy upbringing, etc. But I think I should have chatted with him not because we should pity his circumstances. Whatever history or causal factors do not absolve him for what was likely a heinous cruel and absolutely horrible crime, a potentially unspeakable act. We are all products of things outside of our control, yet to remove responsibility is to remove agency, to treat all people like billiard balls, and remove the potential for meaningful inward change. I was happy I had the opportunity to chat with him (and would do so again), but it's about showing him the personhood that can take responsibility and take steps towards a better future. That said, I may have a different view on this some other time.

(Disclaimer: I once took a philosophy seminar on free will. I wrote my final paper on how I felt we should ascribe more responsibility to people in the criminal justice system, while being more humane in our approach to punishment. I wrote a similar paper regarding mental illness in the legal system for a junior paper.)


In the moment, the whole chat seemed natural. I mean I had the thought that this was not going to be your average chat, but I was just doing what the circumstances seemed to flow into. At a few moments I had doubts, though. Like when I shook Zee’s hand at first, I wondered, is this dude just waiting to lure some idealistic kid, maybe pull out a knife in this stairwell? Was I putting too much trust in him? Was I putting too much trust in my own ability to assess the circumstance? Or perhpas it came from the accpetance risking my own safety.

I am not sure how I feel that the thought crossed my mind. On one hand, I feel like I shouldn’t judge, on the other hand some sort of realism and caution is due. Perhaps you just gotta be aware and honest with yourself, but make sure it doesn’t prevent the helping hand from reaching out.

Looking at the night, the thought that I had what seemed like even a brief "heart to heart with a homeless guy who went to jail for aggravated manslaughter," sounds quite ridiculous. Not in a bad or good way, just a non-judgmental ridiculous way.

I was being me. And he, it seemed, was being him. And I hugged him, hugging someone who I believe that could change things for the better. Knowing that while things might not get better, there was that possibility. A candle that could burn bright and lead the way. And while the light needs to ultimately be held in his own hands, perhaps someone needs to just remind him of the fire that burns within us all.

Zee is living in the dark shadow of aggravated manslaughter. The best way I can think of him at the moment is a man resigned to the shadow of a person. Whether that shadow evolved from the unspeakable cruelty he may have committed, 17 years in jail, or many broken hopes. While I doubt Pindar had something like this in mind, I can’t help but think of the words said 2,500 years ago: “Man in a shadow's dream.” Let us all help each other light the way and fulfill our dreams.

Rock on,

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