By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
In her adventure to the "other side," Bales says she experimented with cocaine, heroin and finally crack because, "it was romantic—these houses with no electricity, just candlelight, and people smoking together." In order to support her crack habit, she stole clothing and accessories from department stores—Marshall's, Dillard's, Kohl's—and resold her wares on her own small-time black market. When word got out about her new business venture, people put in orders. Bales recalls one woman who "wanted to buy leather jackets for everyone in her family—and it was a big family!"
Bales didn't look the part of the thief—she carried the trappings of her former life, from a Gucci bag to nice high heels, and her candid demeanor didn't hurt either. She says she always acted confident, hardly batting an eye when clerks asked her if she needed help as she waltzed out of places carrying TVs or cases of beer.
"If I saw some shoes I liked better than the ones I had on, I'd take them," Bales says with a shrug—put them right on her feet and walk away.
Things started to get a little rougher, though, when in 2006 she served her first stint in the Dawson State Jail in Dallas for stealing her ex-husband's Rolex. A string of misdemeanors kept her in jail over Christmas and New Year's of 2007; once she got out, she resolved to stop stealing. But she fell back in with the same crowd, spending nights in freezing crack houses where people still knew her. When a request for an item from Walmart came her way, she figured one more gig wouldn't hurt. It only took one, though, to land her back in Dawson—this time for nine months.
During her time behind bars, she volunteered as a Peer Educator for Texas Hope Literacy Inc., a program designed to help incarcerated men and women learn to read and get their GEDs under the tutelage of their fellow inmates. After her release, Bales went to Grace Unlimited, a nonprofit geared toward helping female inmates transition to life on the outside. A board member recommended her to one of the assistant managers at It's a Grind.
Bales threw herself into learning the coffee business and in March was promoted to lead barista. For Bales, It's a Grind represented not only a second chance at "normalcy," but also a community where she could be herself.
"We just come from all different kinds of backgrounds," Bales told the Observer in April. Sometimes she would take a short break out back with another employee who had a rough time, Bales said, and they would swap stories about the past. "Everybody has problems—hopefully not all at the same time!"
It's hard to envision that such a frank, funny woman could have lived such a troubled life. But that impression changes after learning that she left her job at It's a Grind this June, that her phone has been disconnected, her whereabouts are unknown and some fellow staffers are fearful she has returned to the life she left behind.
Barista Stephen Barley remains convinced his problems are far behind him. He grew up in a strict Pentecostal family. When he was 12, he moved to the Plano area, and by the time he was a teenager had successfully persuaded his mother to let him attend a public high school. Barley says he loved it—but since he'd lived such a sheltered life until then, he "started doing everything you can imagine that I shouldn't have been doing."
Trouble came in the form of drugs, parties and, when he was 18, a pregnant girlfriend. Because of his family's beliefs, Barley had only one option: marriage. By 19, he was married with a daughter. Two years later, his wife gave birth to twin boys.
"When I look back on it now, I think there's so many things that I could've done differently—but I was so young," Barley says. He and his wife stayed together for four years, until he conquered his fear of coming out as a gay man. His family's fundamental religious views made him worry that he'd become a pariah—yet when he "'fessed up" to his wife, he recalls her saying, '''I was wondering when you were going to come and tell me!'" After that, he moved around, eventually settling back in Dallas to be near his children, who now are 19 and 21.
Aside from being a little jaded with his whole Starbucks experience, Barley wasn't looking for a second chance when he began work at It's a Grind. "I love this place," he says. "I mean, after five and a half years at Starbucks, [It's a Grind] started me out at a better rate! They asked me what I was making, and they added a little extra onto that. And I get my insurance for free—where are you gonna get that?" Even though Starbucks is known for its good benefits, Barley says, most coffee shops don't pay over $7 or $8 an hour; here, it averages around $12.