Berry will run until the sun peeks out above the horizon, and until he is exhausted. His mind, though never truly clear, will feel less cloudy, less crowded. He sees it as a chance to reflect, to work through his thoughts, one at a time, until he feels at peace.
James Berry III - "Little Berry" to his parents and to his coach - will likely run again tomorrow. He'll run the 3 1/2 miles that separate his house and UMAR Gym, on the corner of North and Druid Hill avenues. The building that houses the second-floor gym overlooks a stretch of concrete as crooked and broken as the nose of a beaten fighter. It shares the street with a pair of bail bondsmen, two liquor stores, a pawn shop, a funeral parlor and a vacant row house that is decaying. Across the street, there is a church.
At UMAR Gym, Berry will spar, work out, and listen to rap music and the wisdom of his coach, Marvin McDowell. At night, it's likely he'll be unable to sleep. And so he will climb out of bed, open his front door, leave the safety and comfort of his quiet neighborhood behind, and sprint into the dark.
He will try to find the strength, on the streets of Baltimore, to be a better man.
Most mornings, perhaps even on a morning like this, James Berry Jr. will open his eyes well before the sun rises. He'll crawl out of bed and try to exercise, desperate to loosen his back. He knows that if he doesn't stretch and relax his muscles, the pain will cripple him. The 50-year-old Berry, known to Maryland's Division of Correction as prisoner No. 288-729, will sit patiently in his cell until the guards unlock his door at 7:30.
He is one of the lucky ones. In the 7 1/2 years he's been here, he's had a single cell to himself. He'll sit in his room, read the Quran and pray. He coaches a prison basketball team, organizes and attends meetings for former addicts, and sweeps and mops the floor of the prison's bakery. He tries to keep to himself, to steer clear of trouble. He writes letters. Letters on lined, yellow notebook paper in cursive script that is clean and meticulous. He wrote one recently to McDowell, asking him to please look after Little Berry. On the days his son fights, the father paces the length of his cell, sometimes for hours, trying to calm his nerves. Often, he won't hear the outcome of the fight until well into the next day.
A father's regrets, fears
To hear his story, one must travel through a metal detector, acquire a yellow plastic visitor's bracelet and receive a hand stamp visible only under ultraviolet light. Escorted by guards, Berry Jr. clutches wrinkled newspaper clippings that mention his son and finds a seat in the corner of a room full of convicts. He wears a white, baggy T-shirt that stops at mid-thigh and blue jeans. Like his son, he gestures with his hands when he speaks.
He thinks often about the events that brought him to Hagerstown, where he spends nights behind steel bars, in a building surrounded by 30-foot-tall fences laced with razor wire. A low-level, independent drug dealer for nearly 20 years, Berry is serving an 18-year sentence, the result of a 1999 guilty plea for first-degree assault, drug possession and handgun charges. The assault, according to Berry, took place while he was high. Initially, he was charged with attempted murder, but prosecutors dropped the charge when he agreed to plead guilty to the assault.
"I hurt somebody," he says, staring at the floor.
He says he'd like to explain further, but cannot. He cringes at the person he used to be. He was so despicable, he says, he and his friends used to brag about Baltimore's high murder rate.
"What kind of person does that?" he asks. After seven years in prison, he still doesn't know the answer. "All my life, I feel like I've failed everyone who ever loved me," he says. A white knit prayer cap covers his head. "The insanity of drugs took me places I never had to go. But I take responsibility for it. I knew right from wrong. ... Growing up, I was always so insecure about myself. I think that's been the cause of most of my problems in life."
He is tormented not only by his regret, but also by his inability to fix it. More difficult, he says, is the knowledge that he cannot be there to ensure that his son does not repeat his mistakes. On occasion, the son will visit, and each time the father gives the same sermon. Look at me, the father says. Is this how you want to spend your days? With someone's foot on your throat, telling you when you can eat, sleep and use the bathroom? You're too good for this. You have too much talent. I did this so you wouldn't have to. The son nods, says he understands. The father is skeptical. He senses that his son thinks he can deal drugs and not be a drug dealer. That and the money are why he won't leave it alone.
"I'm so scared for him, man," James Berry Jr says. His once-proud voice is now dry and raspy, a condition that he believes was caused by years of drug use. His beard, with the passing of each year, shows more gray. "I know he's the kind of kid who won't back down. They've got guns out there on them streets, and he only has his fists. Right now he thinks he can nibble a bit and pull back. I don't know. I'm just so scared for him."
The son was 12 when his father went to prison, already aggressive and looking for an outlet to his energy and frustration. Berry Jr. assumed, at the time, that missing his son's childhood would hurt the most. He was wrong. It is the present, with his son is on the cusp of manhood, that torments him more.
"I hate being here," Berry Jr. says. "But I'd spend an extra seven or eight years here if I knew he wouldn't get caught up in this. I just don't want this for him."
Their skin is different; the father's is light, almost like caramel, and the son's is dark, like his mother's. The father's nose, his chin, his hands - all bear little resemblance to his son. James Berry Jr. and James Berry III appear to share only a name. But their eyes, up close, are almost identical. Large, dark brown, intense. There is a hint of sadness in both.
"He's so deep and profound," the father says of his son. "Always has been. But he's got that rebel thing in him. He's never been a follower. He's always been a leader. He's aggressive, and The Game, it preys on kids like him. ... I know if I was home, he wouldn't be caught up in all this. I'd drag him off that corner."
Later, when the son hears his father's words, he agrees. But for different reasons.
"If he wasn't in there, I wouldn't have to be out there trying make it for myself," Little Berry says. "Financially, I know he'd take care of us. But he can't do that right now."
James Berry III is in the fight of his life
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