Chapter Nine: Borrowing from Dollar Bill: 13 Minute Read
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“Man, I’ve blown through millions of dollars selling cocaine,” Dollar Bill said, sitting on the front porch. On his bicep was a tattoo of our first president’s face on—you guessed it—a Dollar Bill.
Dollar Bill moved into The Good Samaritan Mission directly from prison. His daughter lived at the homeless shelter down the street. She came around the Mission wearing tie dye shirts with jeans and a bandana. She and her father ate at Church’s Chicken together. Sometimes they went to the movies.
Dollar Bill was white, short, and had a big chest from doing a lot of pushups while behind bars. He was missing a few teeth and shaved his head, never missing a hair. “Man, there was only one time I really thought I was going to have to kill a guy,” he continued. “We were in a hotel room and he just burst in wearing a mask, almost as if it was by damn accident. He shot at me and I shot back. We both missed. Then he ran, got in his car, and sped away. I had a couple hundred thousand dollars on me in cash and cocaine.
“But that was a different life,” he said, exhaling before concluding. “Man, I must have blown through millions of dollars selling cocaine,” he repeated, still shaking his head. Dollar Bill tapped his finger on the end of his cigarette. “You know, sometimes I wish somebody would have shown me how to save growing up. In my previous profession, I made money so quickly that I got used to spending it just as quick, and living like that for so long makes it hard to change.”
Dollar Bill, more than any of the other men from the Mission, liked to come to church. He said, “I need all the church I can get.” The first Sunday he came he wanted to attend the newcomer’s class.
At the class a staff member from the church thanked us for coming and asked what we thought about the message. “I thought it was real good,” Dollar Bill said. “Real authentic,” he added. We sat at a table with my bunkmate from The Good Samaritan Mission, Frank, and a family with their thirteen-year-old son. The mother had fluffy blonde hair with bright streaks, a tint of red in her lips, and broad shoulders. Her husband sat to her right wearing a polo shirt and sunglasses with a body that used its annual gym membership. The staff member asked us to go around the table and tell everyone what brought us to church today. The family told us they were new to town and were looking for a church home.
When it came to Dollar Bill’s turn, he looked at the wife and with his fingertips tapping together and a serious look on his face asked, “Do you believe in the power of prayer?” Until then the wife obliged Dollar Bill’s small talk but seemed more interested in the church brochures in front of her. The wife tilted her head as if to say Dollar Bill’s question was not only rhetorical but borderline childish and entirely too personal. But Dollar Bill held his ground, without blinking.
“Yes, of course I believe in the power of prayer,” she said.
“Okay then,” Dollar Bill said, now pushing his head a little lower and forward across the table, raising his pupils to where they met his eye lids, “Let me tell you a little something about myself.”
Dollar Bill began his story in 2002, when he first moved to Charleston from Ohio. In 2003 his son was born, in 2004 he and his wife became separated, at which point he admits a turn for the worse. By the end of 2004 he was both a cocaine dealer and addict and was incarcerated in the summer of 2006. I thought the husband and wife and teenage son’s eyeballs might pop out if they stared any harder. Dollar Bill concluded with, “I just got out of prison on Monday for serving three years for dealing cocaine. I’m trying to keep clean, and I thought church would be a good place to do that. That’s why I’m here. I’m here because I believe in the power of prayer.”
I wondered what would happen next, if the family might leave or call security. I worried I wouldn’t be allowed back to church. That’s when the father looked at Dollar Bill and said, “My sixteen-year-old son is a cocaine addict.”
“Dad!” the younger son said, “maybe he can help Ryan!”
Dollar Bill told the family about how he needed a job, how one of his daughters was in foster care, and how he needed prayer. “God was with me in prison. At one point I hadn’t heard from a soul in three months, not my wife, not my children, not the lawyer I’d been paying. I was in my cell alone on my knees begging and crying to God to give me anything, anything at all, any hope. That’s when the intercom asked for ‘William Hollis.’ The guard came to get me and led me into the visiting area where I saw my lawyer’s secretary. It was just my lawyer’s secretary, but it was also God, telling me that he hadn’t left me, that he was still there, that there was a reason to have hope. There’s hope for your son,” Dollar Bill said.
By the time the family had finished telling Dollar Bill about their sixteen-year-old son, the newcomer’s meeting was over. The family and Dollar Bill swapped information, and the father even said he would help Dollar Bill find a job.
As we drove home across the bridge in my truck, with Frank in the middle and Dollar Bill on the passenger side, Dollar Bill looked at me and said, “Derek, I really enjoyed that. Thank you for taking me.” Then he added the thing he would always say, “I just pray that God will do for me what I can’t do for myself.”
Dollar Bill, like many of the men I met who were released from prison, was an entrepreneur. In Dollar Bill’s case, he found it hard to work for others after having worked for himself.
Dollar Bill came home one day with dirt on his head.
“What did you do at work today?” I asked.
“Man, I slept,” he said.
“Yeah, man. I crawled under a building at the construction site and slept. It’s too hot to be working for seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour. I ain’t working in the heat for that.”
Even while Dollar Bill slept on the job he managed to start a side business collecting scrap metal and copper from job sites to sell on the weekends.
“Hey, Derek,” he said one Friday night, “I got a business proposition for you.” He exuded the confidence of an executive for a Fortune 500 company. But then Dollar Bill moved too close. His chest got a little bigger, and I felt like I was trying to avoid a kiss on our first date.
“Oh yeah?” I said, taking a step back.
“Yeah, if you’ll take me to the scrap yard tomorrow, I’ll do your weekend chore,” he said, referring to each resident’s responsibility to do a chore around the Mission. He stepped another inch closer.
I thought for a brief second before saying, “No, thanks. I’m not interested.”
Dollar Bill took a step back. He looked at me cross. “Fine then,” he blurted, “why you got to be like that? Why should I even bother telling you my ideas?”
While I didn’t appreciate his attitude, I agreed Dollar Bill could pay me a few dollars for gas, and I would be willing to give him a ride.
The next morning, we drove the relatively abandoned and industrial spine of the city, headed towards the scrap yard with Dollar Bill’s metal in the back of my truck. We were small chatting when Dollar Bill said it again, “I just pray that God will do for me what I can’t do for myself.” I nearly asked what he meant by that before assuming it was the same for Dollar Bill as it was the rest of us: a family, a good paying job, to be “successful”—the American Dream.
By the time I’d parked my truck, Dollar Bill was already unpacking suitcases full of copper wire onto a giant scale. He had some “copper one” and “copper two.” They were different prices by the pound. The copper one was thinner and lighter in color. The copper two was thicker and darker. I helped Dollar Bill unload the suitcases and then continued eating my banana.
The scrap yards were in a different part of town, one of those parts of town I’d only seen passing from the interstate in the roughly twenty years of living in Charleston. The scrap yard was a couple of bare buildings with a big scale for trucks to pull onto and a few smaller scales for things you load yourself. There were piles of metal and copper and steel everywhere. I watched as Dollar Bill finished loading everything on the scale and tossed my banana peel in the trash can.
On the drive home, Dollar Bill told me what he planned to do with the one hundred and twenty dollars he got for selling copper. “You know man, I’m taking my sister Sally out tonight. I haven’t seen her since I went to prison, and she’s getting out right now.” She’d been incarcerated sometime after Dollar Bill had, and when he’d gotten out she was still in. “You know,” Dollar Bill said, “Sally has ruined a lot of people’s lives, partially including mine. She’s spent tens of thousands of dollars of my cocaine merchandise, you know, but damn,” he continued, “she’s still my sister.” We took a right and began to cross a bridge over a railroad. A few abandoned railroad cars sat off to one side. “When I was in jail I didn’t know if she was dead or alive. I knew that she was out there on the streets hanging with the wrong crowd, and I just prayed that she was alive, and you know, God doesn’t usually answer my prayers the way I want him to, but he answers them the way he knows is best. So when I got out and found she was in, I knew she was still alive.”
As I listened to Dollar Bill, I thought about the night we first met, only a few days after he got out of prison. He was excited, holding a giant, black garbage bag in his hands. “Man, I just met up with the guy who ratted me out to the cops,” he said. “When I was in jail the guy just kept contacting my ex-wife over and over again, telling her how sorry he was for what he did to me. The guy really wished he hadn’t ratted me out. I think he was nervous I’d either kill him or have somebody else kill him.” Dollar Bill raised the huge trash bag. “He just gave me all these clothes!”
I couldn’t understand how, in Dollar Bill’s eyes, everything that had happened between him and the person who ratted him out was just water under the bridge. “I don’t know man,” Dollar Bill told me, “I just figure the more you hold on to something, the more it’s got a hold on you.”
“It’s like this about my sister Sally,” Dollar Bill said on our drive back to the Mission. “Christ tells us that we have to forgive others if we want to be forgiven.” Then he tapped me on the shoulder. I glanced over to the passenger seat and made eye contact. “Ain’t that right?”
Later that evening I wrote in my journal:
“Christ tells us to forgive others so that we, too, may be forgiven. Living at the Mission is showing me how much of my behavior and outlook towards society disregards his command. As a college graduate with a middle class pathway laid out for me, the American Dream consistently tells me I’m a success. I spend most of my time with those who are pretty much like me. I behave pretty much the same way as everybody else, focused on minor adjustments like recycling and buying fair trade coffee. We collectively reinforce to each other that we’re doing right, and the areas where we’re wrong can’t be that wrong because, after all, everybody we know is doing it. We perceive ourselves as needing little forgiveness and consequently extend it quite sparingly.
On the other hand, Dollar Bill’s criminal record and drug history make him a reject by society’s standards, drastically limiting his options for employment, housing, education, the ability to vote, and more. He and others like him live on the streets and under bridges and in shelters and prisons and ghettos. These failures by American culture’s standards have no illusions about their need for forgiveness, and consequently receive and extend it far more freely than I.
Failing systematically, structurally, and indirectly to forgive seems to reinforce living fragmented and segregated from those who are different from us. This hurts us in a couple of ways.
One, it builds mistrust, fear, resentfulness, and an unwillingness to work together among individuals and groups.
Two, we’re blinded from our flaws and opportunities to grow when we live separate from those who behave and think differently from us. In my case, I have to unlearn much of what I thought about both Dollar Bill and myself in order to learn about forgiveness.
Lastly, we risk living very narrow lives that cannot empathize with, serve, help others, and in turn gain purpose. We risk losing our opportunity to meet Christ, who insists that when we see his face we’ll realize we’ve really known it all along from the faces of others. He’ll tell us that when he was hungry we either did or didn’t give him something to eat, when he was thirsty we either did or didn’t give him something to drink, when he was a stranger we either did or didn’t invite him in, when he needed clothes we either did or didn’t clothe him, when he was sick we either did or didn't care for him, and when he was in prison we either did or didn’t visit him. When we ask when we did or did not do these things, he’ll say it was all indirectly. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’[i]
I can miss Jesus simply by choosing to live according to society’s unwritten and unquestioned rules that keep people Jesus says are himself from coming around. Why do I keep Jesus away? Is it because he's a criminal? But if I want to be close to him wouldn’t I also want a prison in my neighborhood so I could visit him more conveniently? Is it because he’s uneducated? But which is better, learning a degree for a job or forgiveness for the soul? Or is it because he’s poor and needy? But wouldn’t I give up a higher real estate value to be able to live closer to Jesus? Danish politician Ditlev Gothard Monrad observed ‘that the human heart houses cravings to which it gives false names in order to justify love for them…greed is called concern for spouse and children.’[ii] At least Dollar Bill is honest enough to tattoo his love on his arm.”
A few weeks later Dollar Bill disappeared from the Mission. I didn’t know where he was for months until my bunkmate Frank came home and reported he’d seen him that day.
Frank worked through a labor agency sanding cement blocks. They were building a new prison and every block in the place had to be sanded. Frank saw this as “job security.” The new prison was next to the old prison. Frank was sanding blocks on the third floor of the new prison when he looked down in the old prison’s yard and saw a familiar bald head in an orange jumpsuit with a Dollar Bill tattoo on his bicep.
It took me several weeks to see him. First I had to write. Then he had to schedule me an appointment, which I didn’t know about until it was too late. When I finally walked down a long, white hall to see him on the other side of a video screen, he told me the same thing again, that “on the outside I just kept asking God to do for me what I couldn’t do for myself.” It seemed to me, then, that God must have failed Dollar Bill.
“Man, Derek, I’m only in here on a brushed up charge for possession of marijuana, but man, I’ve been doing cocaine daily for months behind everybody’s back. I was carrying around a sample of my daughter’s urine in case the Pastor drug tested me.” I looked at the top of his bald head with a telephone pressed to his ear and his elbow sticking straight up in the air somewhere in Leeds Prison, laughing at his delayed jokes as they came through the receiver.
Dollar Bill finished his story with, “But I just kept asking God to do for me what I couldn’t do for myself.” He said this shaking his head, as if in awe and disbelief, as if he had expected one thing and gotten another.
When he began to tell me how he’d buried himself in his Bible, how he had grown close to God, how he was going to write the Pastor a letter, and how next time when he got out it would be different, I began to tune him out. I’d heard these sorts of things before, how someone was sorry, how they had changed. Dollar Bill went on for five minutes telling me these things until finally, after a deep breath, he finished with, “…and then God did.”
The deep breath broke my daze. I looked up and asked, “God did what?”
“He forgave me and got me off the drugs,” Dollar Bill said. “God did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.”
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[i] Matthew 25: 40
[ii] “For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By The Church”, The World of Prayer, pg. 959