Sunday morning at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, under the Jones Falls Expressway, a street performer's didgeridoo provides a bizarre bass line to the tolling bells of nearby Zion Church, and hundreds of people are strolling, sniffing, nibbling and gabbing. It's one of the great scenes of the city. I'm standing in line, sizing up a stack of cantaloupes, when, above the didgeri-ringing din, I hear someone call my name.
It's a middle-age man, trim and neatly dressed. The man tells me this: His company hired an ex-offender about six months ago.
The man says he got the idea of giving a guy a second chance from reading in this column last year of others who were willing to do it.
The man works in sales for a landscaping company - "A good, established, Christian company," he calls it - and I recognize the company's name; I've seen it on many trucks.
The company decided to put one of Maryland's many ex-offenders to work. That never happened before, the man says, and I get the impression he had something to do with nudging his company into taking a the risk on someone with a criminal record.
So, how's it working out?
"Just fine so far," the man says. The ex-offender shows up for work and he has proved himself reliable. Now, the man says, his company might hire more guys with records. He hands me his business card and says to call him with prospects.
You don't think this makes my day?
You don't think this makes me wanna holler?
I have 30 phone calls from ex-offenders for every one from a company willing to hire a guy.
I spent all day Saturday, as it rained, at the kitchen table going through dozens of letters from men in prison.
Almost every letter was from an inmate hoping to land work once he gets out. They worry about this. Even those who have several years to go before they are paroled worry about it.
The letters come from Hagerstown and Cumberland, Westover and Jessup. They come from county detention centers and pre-release units.
"A fellow inmate and myself are trying to prepare for being released in the next six months," William Ketchum wrote from the Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland. "Do you know of any state or federal grants for inmates that get released so we can go to college [in] culinary arts cooking?"
"I'm getting old," Maurice Boston, 50, wrote from the troubled Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. "I'm tired of this life. I want to be a part of society and live a normal life. Do you think you can help me find a program that could teach me how to be productive and help ease my mind away from drugs?"
Most of the letter writers are in their 30s and 40s; some are in their 20s. One inmate, at WCI Cumberland, wrote on behalf of his younger brother, at the boot camp at Jessup.
"He made one bad decision and it cost him dearly," wrote the older brother. "Trying to help someone else out, he got locked up for felony drug charges. He's always been a working man, never been locked up as a juvenile or adult until this charge. He has always been against selling the poison so that's why it is so crazy how he decided to help a love one who is incarcerated get drugs into the prison so that love one could make enough money to get a lawyer. He got two years for it ... His only concern is that now, being a felon, he will have a hard time finding employment."
And for good reason.
It's a big problem. Felony convictions present huge obstacles for ex-offenders trying to go straight.
A lot of people in prison, or one step away from it, worry about drifting back to the street.
A recently released inmate called last week to say he had no place to go after prison but to his elderly parents' home, in the same neighborhood where his troubles had started.
"Every day I leave out of my house," he said, "and these same people hit on me, to come back to the corner, selling drugs. And I can't do that. I got to get a job and get out of here."
If we're ever going to break the cycle and actually start reducing prison populations - imagine that! - we have to not only prepare inmates for a successful return to society but provide them with jobs that will keep them off the corners and out of the courts.
It's a four-for-one deal:
A company gets a needed worker, Baltimore gets a productive (rather than destructive) citizen, Maryland gets one less inmate to feed, and men like the one at the Farmers' Market get something no one can hold or weigh or put a price on - that thing called making a difference, one man at a time.
Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio and read his blog at baltimoresun.com/ rodricks. Ex-offenders seeking help in finding employment or drug addicts seeking help in arranging treatment should call 410-332-6166.