Spreading the Lessons of Hard Time on a Hard-Luck Street
By Evelyn Nieves
Published: February 19, 1993
New York Times
JERSEY CITY- TWO doors down from Harvey George's storefront office, the petty drug dealers never let up. Bundled fat against the cold, cupping 40-ounce beers like coffee, they hustle outside the corner bodega in rain, snow, sleet, whatever. Harvey George may be the only person on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive who cares to see beyond their ski masks. He peels past their "What you lookin' at?" glares, forgives (for a moment) their lowly purpose and marvels at their view: kids, 16, 17 years old, full of drive. Budding entrepreneurs. On the wrong course, obviously. But what if they were steered straight?
That's where his office comes in. A hole in the wall that would make a cozy numbers joint, it doesn't have much besides a computer. But it's giving away hard-won experience. Seventeen years on a 25-to-life accessory to murder rap. Mr. George figures it have to count for something. He's 47. After 16 years behind bars and a year in a halfway house in Newark, NJ he won his freedom six weeks ago.
Back in the same rough neighborhood where he started out, he is bent on keeping kids from ending up where he did. "Help Save Tomorrow's Minds From Crime Today" the sign above his window reads. He repeats is like a mantra. "I could have looked for a job", he said. "But the thing I do best is talk to kids".
For four years, Mr. George headed the program that brings teen-agers to meet lifers at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway for a dose of inmate hell (as in "Scared Straight" documentaries).
It taught him to reel out stories on the virtues of staying clean as fast as a 12-step graduate. One gang rape story turns the cockiest faces into Cabbage Patch Kids.
But he wants to be more than a "Scared Straight" satellite. His program, incorporated as Friends of the Lifers' Youth Corporation, aims to show kids how they can stay straight and make money. It was way too soon, of course, to tell where the program is going. It has no money and programs with far better resources have died.
But parents are bringing their children by. Neighbors are offering to volunteer. Even street toughs have stopped in. "They're not making any more out there," Mr. George said, gesturing toward the drug corner.
The plan is to open a flea market run by teen-agers. Mr. George already has the space, a lot across the street from the office, donated by the Universal Full Gospel Church of God. All it needs now besides gravel are the vendors to fill it. To get them, Mr. George runs weekly tutoring sessions on starting a small business. Very small at first. He takes the teen-agers on trips to Manhattan's wholesale district and shows them how to turn $12 into $24 with a dozen roses, six T-shirts into 12, and so on. It is a business he knew and loved before. "If only, he says, "I'd stayed with it".
Sometimes, he fronts children money. It isn't easy. He works part-time at Khaleidoscope Health Care, a local referral service for drug addicts, but he doesn't make much. Still, the referral service is a godsend when drop-ins come in or call for help. "This guy here", Mr. George said, after a phone call, "Was crying for a bed. He has people after him and wants to hide out". He called the hospital and set him up.
He is easy to like. He has a gentle, bearded face of a rugged love-animal-and-all-living- things kind of guy, like the ones Dan Haggerty used to play. His stocky build, chest yielding to gut, is more lifetime cop than longtime con.
(In prison, he was a bookworm). His voice is as soft as a priest's in the confessional.
Already, he has five or six part-time volunteers. They take students on trips to Rahway- Mr. George won't go near the place-- they help clean the musky back room where cats (obviously) once roamed, answer the phone.
His 23 year-old-niece, Patrina Wright, volunteers full-time. "I wanted to be a model, "she said, giggling. "I guess modeling will have to wait". Her uncle had been a small-time hoodlum, working honest jobs between bad ones. One day in 1974, he said a man from New York wanted to dispose of some hot jewelry. He told the man about a guy who would buy it. Somewhere between the buying and selling, the seller stabbed the buyer. Mr. George said the seller then called him for a lift and told him what happened. Two years later, Mr. George was tried and found guilty of aiding and abetting the crime. With the priors, he was given 25 years to life. His hair turned salty. His three babies grew up without him. Friends died. "AIDS", suicide, O.D.'s, murder, "he said. "I died a million times myself".
Now he lives with his mother. He admits that in weak moments, when final payment notices arrives in the mail, he remembers his old ways of creative financing. His mother set him straight. "I say, Lord, how am I going to pay the phone bill, it's four months late", he said. She tells him to use his gift of gab and good intentions.
"So I went to the phone company and I explained how I'm an ex-con trying to help these kids get off the streets and I can't afford to pay the bills", he said. The response has convinced him the office could work. "They put me on a payment schedule". [This article appeared in the New York Times, February 19, 1993].