LAS VEGAS – The first thing I noticed were his earrings. Drew Williams, 61, sports diamond studs that could cut through glass. He was nursing a bottle of Corona with a wedge of lime, an untouched basket of chips and salsa on the table. When he smiled, his gold incisors sparkled. Williams wore a watch the size of a corsage and a baseball cap with his first name stitched across the front.
He was killing time at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant while waiting for his car to be fixed at a nearby mechanic.
Williams knows a thing or two about time.
When we met a few weeks back, he told me he arrived in Las Vegas to start a new chapter of his life, after eight years of incarceration for robbery at San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest and most notorious correctional facility. While in San Quentin, Williams was part of a different 1% than the one most referred to these days: In the United States, one of every 100 adult Americans is in jail or prison. As The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, sang this about San Quentin, “I hate every stone of you.”
Williams is all too familiar with some of those stones. He explains to me that two of those eight years were spent “in the hole,” otherwise known as solitary confinement. Author Adam Gopnik, in his recent article for The New Yorker, reports that each day, “at least fifty thousand men — a full house at Yankee Stadium — wake in solitary confinement.” During those 730 days of limited human contact, Williams describes how his neighbor taught him how to play chess through the walls of their cells. They played one another through the power of their imagination.
Once released, “I turned my life around,” Williams says. For the last 17 years, Williams tells me he’s worked in the Las Vegas Distribution Service Center for Levi-Strauss & Co. He is active in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 711. He thumbs through his cell phone to show me photos of his newest grandson.
When I ask Williams about the upcoming election, he speaks with a realism that in part stems from the total of his life experiences. “I’m a Democrat,” he says. “Obama faced many challenges, and I think he could have done some things better.” But Williams takes the long view, and says that one man cannot change a system overnight.
“It’s going to take time,” he says, “It’s going to take a miracle.”
I take his words to heart. The man knows about time.