There are young men out there - teenage boys from Baltimore to Columbia, from Aberdeen to Annapolis - who will be making decisions this spring. Some will have to decide where to go to college in the fall, or which lacrosse team to play with this summer, or which girl to ask to a prom. Some will have to decide whether to continue to be a stickup boy or a young thug who sells heroin.
It's for that last group - teenage boys at high risk of dropping out of school (if they haven't already), of becoming addicted to drugs, getting arrested, fathering children they can't support, being shot to death - that Mike Bibbens and hundreds of other men have a message. The subject of "the kids out there" came up again and again during countless hours of interviews over the past 10 months with ex-offenders, former drug dealers and recovering addicts, many of whom said they had a message they wanted to share.
Easter Sunday, and the message goes like this:
Young brothers, today's a good day to make a decision to live a long life, a better life.
You're repeating the mistakes of the generation that came before you, and you're going to end up addicted, imprisoned or dead. Get out while you can. Set a new course. "The sooner the better," Bibbens says. "The longer they wait, the harder it's going to be to change."
In discussions about the region's problems, people always come back to the fact that young men in Baltimore - young, black men, above all - don't have fathers in their lives, or positive male role models. That's all too true.
But all boys - white, black, Asian, rich, middle-class, poor - can suffer from the lack, or absence, of male counsel. Fathers, uncles, teachers, coaches - we tend to assume we're helping young men by simply being a masculine presence in their lives. But that's not enough. All boys need to hear our stories and get our advice, whether it's time-honored, heirloom wisdom or the simple lessons of modern experience.
Mike Bibbens and many other men like him - 30- to 50-year-old Baltimoreans who grew up in poor, fatherless households, became drug dealers as teenagers, and wasted gobs of their lifetimes getting high or sitting in prison - come late to the male village council.
But I say better late than never.
"Unless you really want to get away from that life, you won't," Bibbens told me. "Even after being in prison, unless you really have the desire to get away from that life, you'll go right back to it. And that's what I did. It took me another 10 years [after prison] to get the desire to change."
And he wishes he had it to do over again.
Bibbens started selling heroin in East Baltimore when he was 14. He only saw his father occasionally. The adult males with the greatest influence on him were drug dealers. "I was excited about getting into the game," Bibbens says.
But the game led him to addiction. He used heroin and sold it. When he was 18, he pulled an eight-year sentence for drug distribution; the state sent him to Hagerstown and warehoused him with other like-minded men. They all had the street mentality. "I used heroin in prison, too," Bibbens says. "The 'street' was in prison. It was the same as being back at Hoffman and Holbrook [streets, in East Baltimore]. The only thing missing was women."
Bibbens went back to dealing drugs, and he went back to prison - again in 1987, again in 1994. He wasted prime years in cell blocks.
The turn came, Bibbens says, when he fell for a strong-willed woman, the cousin of a cellmate. The relationship started over the telephone while Bibbens was incarcerated and continued after his release. That woman, who insisted Bibbens get out of the drug game for good, became his wife.
Today, at 42, Bibbens is a working man, supporting a new family, serving as a deacon of his church.
"I've been clean [drug-free] 11 years," he says. "God sent me a strong woman I couldn't push over. He placed her in my life, and she helped me along the way."
I hear this from a lot of men: God came into their lives, a strong woman had faith in them, and life seems precious, the way it never did before. The men I've encountered, the ones who have lived into their 30s, 40s and 50s, can't bear the thought of more prison time, and they know they are lucky to be alive.
They've had friends, brothers, cousins - even sons - who were killed on Baltimore's streets. In Bibbens' case, a boy he'd fathered during his drug-dealing years in the 1980s was shot to death here one night in September 2002. He was 15. The boy's drug-addicted mother didn't want the boy's father around, Bibbens says, so he was unable to influence the boy or take him away from the street life that eventually killed him.
I think that's part of the reason why Mike Bibbens wants his message out now - maybe he can save other young men in a way he could not save his own son. It's never too late for men of Baltimore to get that message out, never too early for boys to take it to heart.