By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
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Meanwhile, on the outside, another man had hit bottom. Here is where Oudems' story becomes inextricably wound with his father's. Jimmy Oudems, now 47, had been a crackhead for years, living a messy life in front of his wife and children. Change the names and places, and his story of how he got hooked could be anyone's. He describes the first time he used crack in sensuous terms: "I was wondering what it was, a long pipe thing, and I said let me try it. And so she said OK. Her eyes were bigger than mine--here. And she put that little piece of rock in there, lit it, and I puffed on it and my ears popped. It's like you in an airplane and going too high. My head just seemed like it was flying, right away. It do not waste time. It hit me, and it just seemed like I was whoooeee. Where in the world did this come from? This just must be from heaven."
It didn't take long for Jimmy to figure out its real place of origin. "I started smoking it, and it was on from that day on," he says. "Crack seemed like it come straight from hell. Straight to me."
Jimmy stayed strung out for years, pawning everything in the house that wasn't bolted down while his long-suffering wife worked as a nurse's aide. He even hocked his wedding ring. He'd find himself sitting in dope houses, a grown man taking orders from little toughs with TEC-9s and eyes full of contempt. He'd stand in line at the dope house, stripped of any dignity. Even his alcoholic father tried to set him straight. "I said, 'Everybody doing it, Daddy, everybody doing it.' He said, 'If everybody eat shit, are you gon' eat shit?'"
One time Jimmy was at home, and Daryl, his youngest son, ran by in a big hurry. Clunk. Something dropped out of the boy's pocket. Jimmy looked down. "I said, 'What the hell, boy?' It was a 9-millimeter. And then my other son said, 'I told you. I told you.'"
Little, quiet Daryl was selling dope. Even in his sorry state, Jimmy despaired about his son, and one day he asked him point-blank, "Daryl, will you stop what you're doing?"
The boy shot right back. "Would you stop what you're doing?"
From then on, Jimmy Oudems watched his son get deeper and deeper in what he knew from first-hand experience was an extremely dangerous vocation. "Whenever he'd come back home, he have money, jewelry, clothes, shoes. I'd say, 'Where have you been? Man, you gon' make me do something real bad to you.' He'd say, 'You don't know. You ain't there. How else we gon' get it? You ain't giving me no money to buy Nikes. I get it myself.'"
As low as Jimmy Oudems sunk, he knew in his heart that his son was tapping into something darker. "Selling it was worser than using it," Jimmy says. "It was way more addictive than using it, because it's a ritual with them. They got to cut it up, bag it up...and they be sweating. They got their cigar. I used to watch them."
Finally, in 1997, after an ultimatum from his wife, a brief time living on the streets and a stint in the Salvation Army's drug rehab program, Jimmy Oudems strolled into a service at Bishop T.D. Jakes' church, The Potter's House. He says he walked away transformed, the beneficiary of something like spiritual brain surgery. Jimmy says he was through with crack from that day on. But the preacher went deeper.
"He really preached on fear," Jimmy says. "It really touched me, because I feared so much in my life.
"I didn't really think I could do anything but physical labor," he explains. "I really felt like I was just a warehouse-type person, and I could unload trucks. After I heard him talking about don't fear, go for it, I told my wife I was gonna drive an 18-wheeler. She laughed all the way down the street."
Just months later Jimmy was in New York City. He'd driven his 18-wheeler there. He could hardly believe it himself. Freed of fear, he turned around and reached down to his prodigal son.
Both men speak with admiration about each other, commending how far the other has come. "My dad, he's the one that encouraged me," Daryl says. "He made a dramatic change. He was never there when we was little." Even when Daryl was out on the streets, selling dope, Jimmy, in and out of the penitentiary for offenses such as car theft, made only the feeblest stab at parental guidance. "He'd always say just be careful, and turn his 40-ounce up," Daryl says. "My mother, she was a good father. I think that's the reason I'm still here today, because she used to always tell me she prayed for me. But he's come a long way. He's a father now."
Jimmy and Daryl sometimes work small jobs together, and Daryl has followed his father's path, recently earning his commercial driver's license. When we spoke, he was looking for work driving 18-wheelers, but the search was discouraging. Those drug cases--and that terrifying night on Cleveland Street--always shadow him. The father sees it in his son's anger, in the depression from which he sometimes suffers. "I always try to encourage him to do his best," Jimmy says. "You're gonna get discouraged, but don't let it eat you up. Just be a man. Don't be weak and try to find an easy way out of stuff."
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