Leon Douglas leans on a car in the parking lot of a McDonald’s on 35th and Juneau. Douglas, who’s homeless and had been canvassing the outside of the establishment hoping for some charity, scarfs down a cheeseburger, with one still waiting in the bag; an order of fries and a large Sprite sit on the sidelines.
“You had to learn the hard way,” says Douglas, who grew up without a father near 35th and Center. “All I seen was pimps, prostitutes, whores, things of that nature; nothing productive, nothing that offered me any real insight as to what the future might bring, as far as goals.”
Leon calls the neighborhood, where he lived for all of his childhood, “very rough” and “very unhealthy”; he says there was a lot of drug and criminal activity. At the same time, Douglas describes his childhood experience as the polar opposite. “I appreciate when I was a kid,” he says. “It was very enjoyable … I was very optimistic. I’m what they call down-to-earth. Things came my way, I took the hardship, turned it into something positive.”
Douglas, who has a brother and a sister, says not having a dad around was “a major setback for a young man growin’ up in the ghetto” but, at the same time, his mother was, “strong in character.”
He didn’t have any other male role models in his life, either. “I actually looked up to me. It’s funny. I looked up to me, not another guy,” says Douglas. “I like to think that I brought to the table, so to speak, my creativity, my productivity, my communication skills.”
And, while he admits that having a father around might have helped him avoid some of the pitfalls in life, Leon said he doesn’t have any regrets. “It’s more understanding,” he says. “The minute things happen and you find yourself in a very compromising situation, you can only say, ‘Wow, this is a learning experience.’ And, you move forward.”
“Sometimes, finding out for yourself is the best way.”
Douglas says he loved reading, something he “pretty much” taught himself — he would spell words out wherever he went. He was also popular, “The most popular dude in school,” he says.
But was a struggle being different. “High school, I didn’t really like,” Leon says. “A lot of people were tryin’ to ‘find themselves’ at that time. Not me — I already knew who I was.”
So, after high school, Douglas says, “I had to do me.”
“‘Doin’ me’ consisted of … just applyin’ myself in any area that would be beneficial. Took a lot of chances,” he says.
He ended up applying himself on the street, getting involved in the “drug lifestyle.” He experienced a lot. “Sometimes, it was the only way to provide,” says Douglas. “Never committed a crime that I didn’t have to do — never. Every crime I committed was a crime that I had to do in order to make it.”
“There is a great part of society that’s a victim to circumstances. The rich keep gettin’ richer, and the poor keep gettin’ poorer,” Leon says. He’s stolen some cars, in addition to the drugs, but Douglas says he’s “been pinned to a lot of other things, too,” such as robberies and burglaries.
“Harley-Davidson, for instance. There’s over hundreds of millions [of dollars] in there (the company’s headquarters across the street at 3700 W. Juneau Ave.), and the name keeps gettin’ bigger, while the people in the ghetto keep sufferin’ more and more. And, they’ll sit there and locate they-self right there and not give back to anybody in this community in a way that’s direct.”
“I’m no serious criminal if you ask me,” he says, noting that the system is meant to take advantage of people, instead of helping them. “The things that I was doin’ was just makin’ a way. It’s … like: here’s a trap. A guy walks into a trap. And, you tap him a little bit and say, ‘Hey, you’ve been a bad guy.’ When, all along, you set the trap for him.”
He adds, “When in Rome, you do as the Romans do. So, what you learn is what you produce. I took a skill and applied it. Never liked one minute of it, but I had to.”
“And, the judicial system has held me accountable for my actions. But, at the same [time], it’s placed me into even more compromising situations.”
Douglas, who’s 36, has spent 17 years in prison, off and on. Most recently, he got out about two months ago. He’s been on the street since then. “Once again, I became a victim of society. Upon my release from prison, I was not provided any type of resources that would be truly beneficial,” he says. “They hand you plenty of pamphlets.”
Douglas says it’s all a facade, a facade to keep the rich people looking good and keep the poor people working. “This is man’s way of design,” he says. “From all these fancy buildings to all these money-making schemes, billions of dollars that float from here to there that you and I will never see.”
“And, it’s not so much that we really want the billions,” says Leon. “I’m more content with just layin’ right here.”
It’s not that Douglas is lazy, maybe it’s just that he doesn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. What he does see is greed — what he calls “man’s biggest problem” — and its result.
“You’ve got to take advantage of people … You have to. In order to stay afloat in the grand scheme of things, you have to take advantage of people — that’s just how it works,” he says. “That’s not good; it’s not healthy. It’s not good, at all. Takin’ advantage of another man, a brother, somebody that’s makin’ it through life like me? I don’t think that’s cool.”
“My greatest desire is to be content, just to relax,” Leon says. “A man really doesn’t need much, but he doesn’t need to be stepped on.”
“What we need is people to have understanding and to really work with each other. I can sleep right here and feel good, you know what I mean? [I] don’t have much,” he says, adding, “I don’t want to be the dude that’s workin’ extra hard to get nowhere; that’s sad, man.”
“My goal is to make it however long. I don’t know; could be tomorrow. Life has been good, [even] under these fucked up [conditions], because I truly know that I’m a genuine dude,” Douglas says. “And, I like to think that, no matter how I’m livin’ or what I’m goin’ through, that the hardship doesn’t matter because I can endure more. There’s a lot more that I can take.”
Leon says it’s his spiritual belief that gives him hope for a better future. “Gotta believe in somethin’, man,” he says. “Because those buildings can’t reach that sky. Those billions of dollars can’t reach the sky.”
He says, “Once you find out what it is you need to know in order to keep you afloat, you live for that — you live for the belief. And, I believe that everything works out for the good.”
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