One man got up before daybreak and took two buses. Another rode his bicycle more than six miles to the top of the hill in Halethorpe, where a nondescript garage harbored hope.
Five men from Baltimore with criminal convictions had been offered job training through Vehicles for Change, a nonprofit that takes dirty, discarded cars and turns them into valuable transportation for the poor. The men believe the training program will change their lives.
But transformations take time. Instructors thought they saw it happen with John Adams, who was in the preceding class of trainees learning to be vehicle detailers. He ended up stabbed to death on a West Baltimore sidewalk in April. An imposing 6-foot-2, Adams bristled with entitlement when he started the program, but as he progressed, his teachers watched him become a hard and generous worker on the cusp of starting his own detailing business.
The new men have heard Adams' story but are undeterred in their dreams.
"I don't have anywhere else to turn," La'keeth Blackmon said. "All my friends are dead or in prison. That's a reality living in Baltimore, running with the wrong crowd or not. Homicide is a way of life."
The detailing program illustrates the challenge of finding work for Baltimore's unemployed — officially 8.5 percent of the population. Many come from neighborhoods afflicted by violence, where conflict and quick cash from peddling drugs can upend the best intentions for long-term and legitimate careers.
"You don't want to take that risk, but you got to survive. You need money," said William Wyche, 34, who earned a detailing job after completing the program with Adams. "Trying to do the right thing is not as easy as people think."
The five men who started their training June 23 were referred by the Center for Urban Families. Before them, 36 men had enrolled at Vehicles for Change's Center for Automotive Careers Detailing Program since September, when the $100,000 operation began. Twenty completed it, and 14 found jobs afterward, program director Phil Holmes said.
The detail school used to run four days a week for four weeks but was cut back to two weeks this summer after instructors decided to limit the time the men were training and not earning money. Adams had been desperate for money just before he died, his friends say. His death prompted the change, as did a conversation Holmes had with a trainee who said he needed to sell half his food stamps to survive.
John Henry Adams, 35, had three kids and needed a job. The Mayor's Office of Employment Development referred him to Vehicles for Change. He arrived on Feb. 3 with a history of violence. Court records show he had been convicted twice of second-degree assault. He was released last fall after serving a nearly 15-year sentence for attempted first-degree murder.
Instructors could tell that he was ambitious as soon as he arrived. He asked more questions than his classmates and didn't lack confidence, said Richard Marshall, 37, a friend he met at Vehicles for Change.
But he viewed criticism as "disrespect" and chafed at having to clean cars during the unpaid training, Holmes said. He came from prison and was used to punishing insults with punches or threats, said Tyrone Carter, a 54-year-old program mentor who could relate, having been incarcerated for 16 years.
On the outside, Carter told him, you have to respect other opinions.
"He wanted to move a little quicker," Carter said. "I told him life wasn't moving like that right now."
As the weeks passed, Adams changed. He learned to apologize and didn't take things personally, said Shirome Owens, 31, his instructor. He sought out tips for cleaning the cars and gave them, too. He had support.
But when he left the garage each day, he was alone.
On the night that Adams graduated from training, he was with friends at a West Baltimore rowhouse in the 2400 block of Etting St. that police raided. Police found a cigar blunt and several bags of suspected heroin and cocaine in the home. Officers arrested Adams and four others. They charged him with seven criminal counts, including drug possession, conspiracy and intent to distribute drugs.
A bond company posted $3,500 bail, and Adams was free — but burdened with having to pay back bail and trying to prove to his parole officer that he didn't violate his parole. He told Holmes the drugs weren't his.
He continued to detail at the garage. Stressed, he snapped at a marketer who requested that all work stop for a few minutes so a film crew could film. Adams told her he couldn't afford to stop, Holmes recalled.
Holmes wanted to do everything he could to keep Adams out of prison, and he invited his parole officer to Vehicles for Change.