Newark boy was one person he couldn't hustle

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on February 23, 2016

Christopher Stokes, better known as "Hustleman," said a 7-year-old Newark boy started him on his path of redemption from drugs and crime. He shares his story at Delaney Hall, the place that helped him reclaim his life. The Newark facility is an alternative to incarceration, a dormitory style home for men who are rebuilding their lives.

 

"Hustleman" remembers July 29, 2012, better than any of the phony aliases, Social Security numbers or numerous dates of births he used to conceal his identity from authorities.

On that day, however, Hustleman met his match. He was 50 years old and couldn't weasel away from a curious 7-year-old Newark boy with a jarring question.

"Hustleman, why do you smoke crack?

What bothered him most was that he had no answer as they talked in the hallway of an apartment building at Hyatt Court. It's a Newark public housing development, in which the boy named Samir lived and where the homeless Hustleman slept in a hallway.

Hustleman was so quiet that day, you probably could have heard a mosquito doing you know what on cotton.

"He kept asking me," Hustleman said. "I couldn't answer him."

Neither could Christopher Stokes. That's Hustleman's real name. The truth, from a wise little boy, shook him from the grave in which he had lived for 23 years.  

Delaney Hall

Stokes is above ground now and he shares that "come to Jesus" moment at Delaney Hall, the place where his ascent back to life took shape.

The Newark facility is an alternative to incarceration, a dormitory-style home for men rebuilding lives they maimed with crime and addiction.

Once a week for the past two years, Stokes has returned to Delaney – to deliver a message that is blunt and raw, and one its residents need to hear.

"Only a fool refuses knowledge," he said. "I was tired of being a fool."

The majority of the men listen, their eyes fixed on Stokles as he walks up and down the aisle of a large room.

Stokes tells them that he stopped running four years ago and turned himself in to the police. He was wanted for several burglaries –crimes he had committed to feed his addiction.

The men can relate.  Hustleman's dead-end story was the same as theirs and he has a scorecard as proof: Fifty-three drug arrests and two prison terms totaling 18 months; four felonies; eight trips to Delaney Hall; and the possibility of a five-year jail sentence. None of it fazed Hustleman, he told the group.

"I got comfortable going to jail," he said.

He weighed 112 pounds and had only three teeth. They were so crooked, Stokes jokes, that his pegs in the parlor looked like they were throwing up gang signs.

The men crack up. He's a funny guy, but he's serious, too, telling them that they can no longer make excuses.

The comeback

That was his approach after his charges were reduced and he was allowed to enroll in a drug court program. Lessons from Delaney Hall began to make sense. He didn't slump in his seat during sessions as some of the men were doing as he talked to them.

Stokes isn't offended, because the men paying attention come to him for insight. His journey back, he said, unfolded with some "emotional deep sea diving," so he could love himself again.

"You've got to do that moral inventory of yourself," he said.

When he did, good things started to happen.

After he left Delaney Hall in 2013, Stokes reconnected with Maryam Bey, a former caseworker at the facility. She had moved onto Newark's re-entry program, but told him to look her up for training, employment and services.

Stokes didn't play. He now weighs 190 pounds and shows off a new set of pearly white teeth.

"I was going to be on interviews. I couldn't be talking to nobody with three teeth and my breath stinking."

The men laugh again, but Stokes stays focused on his comeback.  He washed dishes. He learned the culinary arts and how to drive a forklift. He found an apartment and recently was hired as a food prep worker at Montclair State University.

Bey is proud of him. She saw something in him at Delaney Hall, and encouraged him to speak at the facility and the Essex County Jail.

"It's beautiful for them (men) to hear from someone who has gone through what they've gone through," Bey said.

It works, because they've seen the change, even when it seemed unlikely.

"If he can do it, then I can do it,'' said Zikee Thompson, 25.

Thompson grew up at Hyatt Court and saw "Hustleman" when he was running wild. He remembers Samir, too, and how Hustleman stopped other kids from bullying him.

But at Delaney Hall, Stokes represents the hope that many of the men have lost.

"It's like watching my superhero doing his thing,'' said Quran Johnson, 45.

Delaney Hall staff members love to see Stokes. He bounces through halls, sticking his head in and out of offices, making them smile with his motto: "What it is, what it's gonna be and how we gonna do it." 

Stokes still thinks about Samir, who moved away from Hyatt Court.  It's been two years since he's seen the boy, but Stokes would like to thank him again if he gets the chance.

You were compassionate, Samir, when Hustleman couldn't answer your question.

You hugged him and told him that everything was going to be all right.

You said he was "a good dude," who had a "good heart.''

Samir,you made Hustleman understand that. 

You were the vessel to help Christopher Stokes get to where he stands today.

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