Have you ever noticed that front desks at hotels are almost always an ungodly height? For a desk, at least. And only on the outside – the attendant’s side is usually pretty normal. You might think this is just an aesthetics or security thing (it’s much harder to jump over something tall), but I think the reason is much simpler: elbows. I rarely walk into a hotel in a state other than complete exhaustion, so I’ve always been appreciative of being able to prop up my arms and lean on the front desk as I hand over my credit card “for incidentals” and await my room key.
I struck this same pose in December of 2018 on the second night of our stay at a Holiday Inn in Phoenix. It had been another long day, complete with hiking 1,300-foot Camelback Mountain on an empty stomach and then loading a trunk full of film equipment, so I was ready to get back to the room, eat dinner, and go to bed. That plan had been foiled when my key wouldn’t work, so there I was, patiently awaiting a new one.
The gentleman behind the desk checked my ID, scrolled through the guest list, and began programming a new card. As he went about his business, I scanned him languidly. The plain white tag on his mint green vest told me his name was Shawn. He was clean-shaven, wore thick-rimmed glasses, and sported a unique tattoo on the bridge between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. I looked more closely, but couldn’t quite make out the design.
“What is it?” I asked, gesturing.
“The three crosses at Calvary,” Shawn replied. “When I was 10 years old, I gave myself this tattoo because I knew that I would eventually get out of the gang life, and I didn’t want any gang marks on my body.”
I straightened up a bit, intrigued and suddenly a little more energetic. First, logistics. How exactly do you give yourself a tattoo?
“I took a needle, wrapped it with a piece of white yarn, soaked that in ink, and then poked and poked.”
Gahh. Sounds painful.
Now, second, what did he mean “get out of the gang life”? Was he part of a gang? Or maybe I shouldn’t ask that…
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want,” I said.
“No, it’s fine. I’m always willing to tell my story.”
Turns out, from the time he was 9 or 10 until he turned 26, Shawn was a Crip in San Diego. He had dealt drugs since 10 or 11, and been in and out of prison.
“My mom did the best she could, always making sure I had a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food to eat…they may not have been the nicest clothes or the meals I wanted, but they were something. But I learned pretty early on that if I wanted anything else I’d have to get it on my own. So I started dealing.”
“Where was your dad in all of this?”
“I never met my dad.”
Left to his own devices, Shawn had done pretty well for himself. He was savvy, making good money on the streets and keeping himself alive. Others weren’t so lucky. Shawn told me that he had held friends in his arms as they died from gunshot wounds, while all he could do was “shoot back at the dudes who were running away.”
I was stunned. I’d seen this type of thing in movies, but here I was, face to face with a man who had seen it in person, and spent 15+ years living that life. He had stayed because it was the only thing he knew.
“Could you call the police?”
“Not really. There was one time the Bloods were driving around and shooting in the neighborhood I was walking through, so I called the police and asked them to drive me home. Their job is to serve and protect, and I needed to be protected. Eventually they did give me a ride, but after that they knew I was in a gang and there was always a cop watching my house. I didn’t like that.”
“What finally led you to getting out?” I wondered aloud.
“I found out I had a daughter, and wasn’t going to be responsible for her or her mother getting shot at because of the colors I was repping.”
It took him almost 6 years to completely break free from the Crips, mainly because he struggled to find employment outside of the gang. Eventually he did begin working his way through the ranks of the hotel industry, making enough to finally leave San Diego and move to Phoenix.
“What’s your dream now?” I asked.
“I want to help kids who are in the same place as I was. I want to show them that there is life outside the gang…that they don’t have to throw away their lives. I believe I received someone else’s blessing in allowing me to get out, and I want to bless others.”
To my surprise, Shawn had already obtained a degree in social work to help further this dream. If that was the case, why was he working at a hotel? Why didn’t he have a job helping these kids?
“No one in social work wants to hire someone with a record. And besides, no one cares about those kids. There’s no money in that. They’re just numbers on a stat sheet.”
Suddenly, it hit me. This meeting wasn’t just happenstance. You see, when I visited Phoenix previously in 2015, I met the head of prison ministry for the Diocese, a gentleman by the name of Kevin. Kevin has devoted his entire life to helping people the way Shawn wants to. He’s built meaningful, life-long relationships with the victims of the prison system, and has impacted countless individuals as a result. And here was Shawn, wanting to do the same thing, but not knowing how.
“Listen, Shawn. I’m going to the Diocese tomorrow morning for a shoot. Is it alright if I tell Kevin about you and see if he’d be willing to meet?”
The next day I spoke with Kevin, and he agreed to sit down with Shawn to see how they could help each other out. When we got back to the hotel that evening, I relayed this to Shawn. He was visibly moved.
I handed him Kevin’s business card, telling him to reach out after the first of the year. He thanked me, and handed me a voucher for a complimentary breakfast the next morning. I shook his hand, thanked him for being vulnerable about his past, told him it was a pleasure meeting him, and headed back up to my room.
Looking back, I had no idea any of that was going to come up when I asked about the tattoo. Heck, I know a bunch of people who wouldn’t have spoken the question – if they had even noticed, they wouldn’t have wanted to be rude or create an awkward situation. For better or worse, that didn’t occur to me until after I had already opened my mouth. But I’m glad I did. I’m glad Shawn was vulnerable, and that I got to widen my perspective of the world by seeing his.
Everyone has a story. Most people are willing to share it – sometimes they’re just waiting for someone to listen. Shawn’s story was incredible, and I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time to hear it…even if that place was leaning against a hotel desk, waiting for my key.