A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Mentoring programs complain about the lack of adult males. So one took a chance on Marc Plaskie.

After Marc and Anne drop the kids off at their grandparents', they decide to stop by Juliana's grandmother's house in Five Points to say hello to the girl and possibly meet her father. They spot Juliana standing on the porch with several family members. The six-year-old is wearing a new cap that still has the tags on it. It's bright pink, and she has it cocked just to the right -- gangsta style -- the way other kids in the neighborhood wear their caps. Her father, Alex, stands nearby, talking jovially to relatives who come in and out of the house. Alex is in his mid-twenties but could pass for much older. Under the blue bandanna, his face is leathery and scarred.

Alex is happy to finally meet his daughter's mentors. He and Marc strike up a conversation about the technicalities of his parole, and Marc explains that he, too, was once in prison. "It ain't easy getting' back into the real world, I know," Marc sympathizes, his voice taking on a street slang. They discuss their criminal histories like professional colleagues rehashing their undergrad years. Alex appreciates the mentors' efforts, but says they can't schedule anything on Saturdays anymore "because those days are reserved for me." He picks up Juliana and puts her on his shoulders. The girl smiles from her perch; she's happy that her daddy is back. Alex says he's committed to his daughter and twelve-year-old Tony even though he's no longer with their mother. "Angelina's got her new man, and that's cool," he says. "I wish her the best."

Alex vows to stay out of prison for the sake of his kids. But he makes no pretense about quitting the criminal life forever. "I'm going to wait until after my kids are grown," he explains. "Until after they're eighteen, because I want to be here for them and my family, you know?" Alex sells drugs, but he doesn't use them. "My dad used for thirty years, and now he can't do nothing," he says, pointing to his father, a former welder, who's sitting four feet away on a milk crate, hunched over and tired. Tony, who is just starting the sixth grade, is sitting next to his grandfather. Three generations of men, all together on the stoop.

Marc Plaskie's resumé includes years in jail -- and a 
year as a successful mentor to Juliana and her 
Anthony Camera
Marc Plaskie's resumé includes years in jail -- and a year as a successful mentor to Juliana and her cousin.

Angelina is also happy that Juliana can spend time with her father, but she warns her daughter not to believe that Alex will always be around. "I tell her, don't get your hopes up, mi hija," she says. "Because things aren't never going to change at all. And she tells me, 'Mom, I really don't understand this. He says that he loves me, he says that he's going to be there.'" Angelina sighs. "I can't control him. I can't do nothing."

Still, Marc walks back to their car feeling positive about the meeting. By sharing his own checkered past, he hopes he made some bond with Alex on his level and showed that becoming a productive member of society is possible. "He was a really nice guy," Marc says. "I just hope that he was serious about making the change."

It's a process that's still unfolding for Marc. They drive back to their two-bedroom Capitol Hill apartment, which has become something of a museum for the many obsessions Marc has developed in place of drinking or doing drugs. Displayed across every wall like artwork are more than 400 collectable NASCAR matchbox cars that he's amassed over the past year. The toys are all in their original packages and bear the names and stats of Marc's favorite racers; the ones he couldn't fit on the wall are stuffed in plastic bags on the top shelf of the closet. "Yeah, it's a little strange," he admits, laughing, while Anne rolls her eyes.

Marc thinks about Tony. Is the twelve-year-old still serious about school? Is he buying into the idea of getting a job or going to college? "His grandfather ran drugs and guns, and his father ran drugs and guns, and there's probably a part of him that doesn't understand that that's wrong," Marc says. He can understand that. When he was young, he didn't see anything wrong with selling drugs, either. "It was so hard for me to buy into the system," he continues. "A lot of kids get the message that prison is just part of the game. Like it's a normal part of life. At one point it was for me, too."

The first time Marc went to jail in Chicago, he was sixteen and locked up with murderers and pimps. When he emerged unscathed from this coming-of-age ritual for inner-city boys, he had immediate street cred. But now he sees that it meant nothing, except to christen him into a life behind bars. "I just hope Tony's father, in some way, can tell him that being locked up sucks."

As the holidays approach, Juliana tells Anne that she can do Saturday activities again. "My dad's back in jail," she says, as though he's away on an extended business trip.

Anne doesn't ask for how long. (As it turns out, Alex will be released in early January.) Instead, she begins baking a cake for Juliana's seventh birthday. It's an elaborate Tinkerbell cake with pink frosting.

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