Man runs out of time to make up for lost decade

January 29, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Leslie Vass arrives at the McDonald's on North Avenue from some fresh new hell. He's got his kids with him, the 6-year-old Jamal and the 4-year-old Alisha, with their round, perfect little faces. They had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for supper last night in the cramped room where they're all staying up the street, but the room may disappear tomorrow when their money runs out.

Leslie, Leslie, Leslie . . .

Does anyone remember Leslie Vass any more? He's the kid grabbed off the South Baltimore streets 20 years ago, when he was 17, and sent to prison for 10 years for an armed holdup he didn't commit. He'd never been in trouble in his whole blameless life. The victim thought Leslie was somebody else, but didn't realize it for a decade.

When he got out of prison, Vass was 27 strictly by the calendar. Emotionally, he was still that high school kid plucked off the street, only now he had to make it on his own. The state of Maryland, moving quickly to avoid lawsuits, apologized every way it could, except in the important ways.

There was money, which seemed like a lot at the time. They gave him $250,000, but it was spread over eight years. There was no job training. There was no psychological counseling. There was only Leslie Vass released to the world of leases and credit cards and interest rates, where he hadn't a clue about creating a life for himself.

Ten years later, he still doesn't. He's still this string bean kid behind thick eyeglasses, only now there are kids of his own and a wife from whom he is lately separated. She has three of the kids with her, all living at her mother's place. Leslie's got Jamal and Alisha, who wonder where they'll be sleeping after tomorrow.

"I need some help for me and my dad and sister," 6-year-old Jamal announces in a soft, matter-of-fact voice, "so we won't be living in the street no more."

He says this as he bites into a mound of pancakes at McDonald's. It's a frigid morning. When he finishes the big stack, Jamal quietly asks if he can have another, then wonders aloud if McDonald's has any toys. Alisha's drinking her milk. The two of them look well-scrubbed, and they're bundled in heavy winter overcoats and mittens. Their father is gentle and soft-spoken with them. When they leave here, they'll go back to their room for a while, and then walk to some soup kitchen for lunch.

There's got to be a better world than this, only Leslie Vass doesn't know how to find it. He and the kids exist on $373 a month he gets in welfare. The settlement money he had is all gone, blown on cars, blown briefly on drugs, which he says are behind him, blown on gifts for people who said they were his friends, blown on apartments when he didn't know how to control his spending, all of it vanished now, the cars and the apartments and the friends, and all of the money.

"I was trying to catch up with 10 years," he was saying last week, stretching his long fingers out to unbutton his kids' overcoats. "My life was stopped. I didn't have the opportunity to go to the prom, you know what I mean?"

He helps the kids cut their pancakes and pour their milk. They've been moving around, living out of temporary shelters, lately out of a converted hotel a few blocks up North Avenue. The kids aren't in school anywhere. How do you get them somewhere, when there's no fixed address, and no way to transport them?

"A job," Vass says. He's had a few, but they didn't work out. Worked in a gas station, drifted away. Worked in a nursing home, but the nursing home closed. Some of it's probably his fault: There are big gaps in training, which somebody needs to fill in. Some of it's out of his hands: He's gone for job interviews and sent applications all over the place. Nothing doing.

He wants to work. He wants to catch up on the lost years. He says he needs a job that would net him maybe $600. A month. He passed his high school equivalency exam while in prison, and took college psychology and sociology courses after his release, when he was still in the money. He's also trained as a legal assistant. During the last political campaign, he did volunteer work for Parris Glendening. Leslie Vass is no dummy and no deadbeat, just a guy whose growth was arrested for an entire decade, and he's never caught up since.

"I was trying to live for the past, buying cars, buying jewelry," he says. "Buying friends. They were only there when the checks came in. I know you can't live like that, but I found out too late."

He pauses to sip hot coffee from a cup. He'll need the heat in a few minutes, when he takes his kids by the hands and marches them back onto North Avenue. It's cold out there.

"I hate my past," Leslie Vass mutters, almost to himself.

Worse than that: He hates the thing he sees in the future, when he imagines a life for his children.

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