HOLLYWOOD—Even before sinking your teeth into a curry chicken breast and Thai pesto sandwich on sourdough, savoring a forkful of apple cranberry, walnut, goat cheese salad or nibbling stuffed jalapeÃ±os with crumbled bacon (one of five mouth-watering appetizers on the Redemption menu), chances are you will glom onto something out of this world, a terrific dish called gratefulness.
The men taking your orders and bringing food and smiles to your table share the harsh bond of having been sentenced to life in prison. They have one thing an ex-convict craves most, besides freedom, and after doing hard time, it is the thing most routinely denied and yet most necessary on that first step up the ladder toward what is euphemistically called ”˜readjustment to society’—a job.
Cornelius and Reggie are among the lucky: they have found a job here in this cool earth-toned haven, peaceful as a church, where diners huddle over fresh and zesty
California bistro dishes, just a few yards from the bustling corner of Fountain and Vine.
”Redemption is the one place where checking the box on the job application, asking if you have ever been convicted of a felony, is an asset,” says general manager Alan Fahringer.
The statistics are daunting. Seven out of ten
California parolees wind up back in prison in three years, and the paucity of jobs for parolees foredooms their transition into freedom. On the outside, if there is no job and you need money, what are you going to do? You’re going to revert to your lucrative old wicked ways.
Ruth Silverman and Kim Rudd.
“If you saw any of them on the street, you’d never know they had lost 25 years of their life in this way,” says Chef Joseph, a Cordon Bleu graduate, who oversees the kitchen and menu. “They are so nice.”
Kim Rudd, who comes here every time she journeys from Temecula, sees Redemption through her taste buds, “The food is fabulous,” she says as her companion, Ruth Silverman, spoons a big bowl of gumbo full of crab chunks.
“It not a second chance for them; it’s a first chance,” says Joseph. “And they’re so smart. They memorize everything; they have an amazing memory for details and only have to hear it one time. That’s because if they tell you one time in jail, and you don’t do something, the second time you can get hurt.”
On the other hand, they can be baffled and afraid of things like Facebook and cell phones that would be obvious to those of us on the ”˜outside.’ Maybe you’ll be waited on by Reggie. To judge by his peaceful demeanor and deliberate speech belie the stark facts of his incarceration: at 17 and a half years old he entered San Quentin in 1983, when Reagan was president and regular gas was $ 1.24 a gallon.
Confinements followed in New Folsom, the infamous Pelican Bay (he was transferred there after making a knife while behind bars in Corcoran), and Solano State, from which he was released last July two days after his 47th birthday. Introverted as a kid, tight-lipped, imprisoned by bitterness, it took Reggie two decades to shake off stubborn reluctance to speak about what he had done and its ramifications. Reggie claims he’s talked now more in his two months at Redemption than his whole life:
“How much relief I felt when I owned up. I felt like I shrugged a 1000-pound gorilla off my back; I felt lighter than air.”
He has shared his example with other inmates now, urging them to open up. It was illogical, but he shut up about the killing because he was afraid of looking bad. “In your mind, if you go admit it you think you’ll look worse. Which is ridiculous because the Parole Board already knows the worst about you? They have it on paper. I killed a man in cold blood.”
Taking that man’s life, in an attempted robbery that netter not one cent, he now likens to a pebble in a pool of water: the harm has rippled out and affected the man’s family and community. “That man never got to see his kids graduate from school. Never got to give his girl away in marriage,” Reggie reflects.
Non-lifers on the staff, like Chef Joseph who could be working in a five-star restaurant, are not here for the pay. For Alan, Redemption is much more than a job, it’s a mission. Alan was looking at an 18-53 year sentence for cooking the wrong dish, meth, when a judge sentenced him to a program that allowed him to trade prison time for two years in
Delancey Street, a rigorous residential-educational rehabilitation program. His incredibly close call with forfeiting 18 years of his life has fueled his dedication to the cause of providing jobs in a state which has nearly a fifth of the nation’s 140,000 people sentenced to life.
“I was almost one of them,” he says. “I want to give them (the ex-offenders) this opportunity very bad. We want to give them a bigger vision-- an unprecedented vision—for their future.” They are so straight arrow and law-abiding, “contrite, humble, ideal citizens.” Alan observes that those tried for lesser crimes and go through justice’s revolving door with less severe punishments “are punks” who come out with the gangsta attitude intact, while paroled lifers have an overwhelming attitude of gratitude.
“They genuinely appreciate freedom,” says Alan, awestruck. “They are grateful to breathe the salty air of the ocean, being able to come and go. There’s one guy I gave a ride home after work. We were driving past downtown and he appreciated the buildings. He was in awe of the beauty and magnificence of the downtown. I was worried about the traffic.”
Those who come into Redemption are invited to appreciate the exceptional savor of
California bistro food and go away with renewed gratefulness for how much we enjoy and take for granted.
Visit www.redemptionfooda.comfor more information. Open 11 to 8 pm Monday through Saturday in the food mall on the corner of Fountain and Vine in
Hollywood, 90038. They deliver. Phone: (323) 463-4168.
Grady Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.