post written by: Marc Chernoff

Only the Sound of People Thinking


Only the Sounds of People Thinking

Creating a Life

The head chef at my favorite local diner was once a mobster.  The first time I ate there he showed me the scars on his chest, arms, and back. Most of them were from his final night as a member of the mafia – a night that ended in a horrific battle with another mob group.  He was stabbed multiple times and then beaten mercilessly with a steel pipe.  Both of his lungs were punctured and a knife was lodged less than a centimeter from his heart.

According to the paramedics, his heart stopped beating twice in the ambulance.  During those “outages,” he had out-of-body experiences.  He saw God, who told him that he wasn’t done living, that he had obligations to his family, and that it was time for him to turn his life around.

He stayed in the hospital for almost six months.  When he was released, he immediately proposed marriage to his girlfriend, with whom he’d already had two children.  Days later, he moved all the way to the opposite end of the city, attended his first day of culinary school, and began creating a life devoted to peace and spirituality, his wife, and his two baby girls.

A Free Man

He’d been cooking at the diner for ten years when I met him two years ago.  And although he’d chosen the culinary vocation simply because cooking was the only thing he thought he could do well, he quickly found out that it was also a great way to make a difference in people’s lives.  “I serve healthy, nutritious food everyday at reasonable prices,” he’d tell me.  “And this is the cleanest kitchen in town.  I take care of this place and my customers like I take care of my family.”

Although the diner isn’t in the ghetto, it still isn’t in a best area of town.  Many of the kids who hang around there romanticize the mafia and gang cultures… until they meet him.  “It ain’t nothing to be proud of,” he’d tell the kids.  “Nothing!  So stay in school and out of trouble!”

Yesterday I went to the diner for lunch, like usual, but he wasn’t behind the counter.  I asked his assistant chef where he was, but he just looked towards the floor with a despondent expression on his face.  When I asked again, the diner’s only busboy came out from the back and said, “He was arrested for something he did fifteen years ago.  It’s really unfair and messed up.  We don’t think he’ll ever be a free man again.”

The Whole Story

Prosecutors love cases like the one he’s up against.  DNA evidence, a weapon, and multiple witnesses willing to corroborate their story (other ex-mod members already in jail, whom the country judge offered reduced sentences to if they agreed to cooperate).

But what if the facts surrounding the crime for which he was implicated weren’t the only facts that mattered?  What if those facts told a story, but not the whole story – not most relevant or truthful story about the human being in question?

The truth is, his father was in the mafia.  So were his three uncles, two older brothers, and most of the grown men he grew-up around.  As a young boy, as far as he knew, there was no alternative lifestyle.  “I was born into a war.  I started dodging bullets the day I learned to walk,” he once said on a quiet Tuesday afternoon.  “And that’s not some glamorized CNN bulls**t!  That lifestyle, my life, was always a part of a f**king war!”

Yet despite growing up in a war zone (which, by the way, happens to be a thirty-minute drive from one of the most affluent zip codes in the United States), and knowing no alternative, he managed to get his act together, become a productive member of society, and most importantly, become a positive influence to all the young people around him.

Guilty

Today I went back to the diner for some lunch and learned that he was facing a life sentence without the possibility of parole.  “They put an innocent man behind bars,” his assistant chef said.  But it sort of seemed like an absurd statement.

“We all know he’s guilty,” the busboy retorted. Some of the other regular customers in the diner nodded their heads in agreement.

“Screw that!  Society is f**king guilty!” his assistant chef exclaimed, hands shaking, jaw quivering. “Cause he’s still the most innocent, compassionate man I know!”

He waited for a response.  But there was none.

Only the sound of people thinking.

Photo by: Tom Conger

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18 Comments

  • Wow, powerful post - and one with some strong philosophical implications. Really, some aspects of it address many people’s reflection of God - that he forgives - should we truly & honestly have regret in our hearts and growth in our lives. (Disclosure: I’m agnostic)

    I don’t know law, so I can’t address the particulars here, but it seems that the laws must remain, despite the circumstance of this one situation.

    Thanks for the punch to the heart. You woke me up.

  • Amazing story. Makes you think.

    It’s an interesting truth that we are free to act as we please, but not free to choose the consequences. Even though the man in the story had learned how to turn his life around and become a productive member of society (the point of prison, yes?), he would still have to reap the consequences of an earlier version of himself.

    Something for all of us to think about. (Hopefully the diner patrons were thinking something along that line.)

  • Wow, a very touching story Marc. I hope this isn’t a stupid question but is this a true story?

    People might think me absurd for saying this but maybe there is a reason that the time has come for him to go to prison, maybe his work isn’t done and maybe there is a lot of good work he can do there.

  • Wow. What an emotional story. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the law, only the act of the crime is taken into consideration. The subsequent actions of the person are ignored.

    As disappointing as it is for this man, there are still victims to his original crime that demand justice. As in all cases, the precedence has been set and he must pay his dues despite how he turned his life around after the fact.

    Having said that, he still made a positive change in his life and that cannot be taken away from him. He clearly had a very positive influence on a number of people in his life. That can be his legacy and the people who have been helped by him can ensure that his message lives on even though he is no longer around to preach it.

  • wow, thanks for an inspirational story

  • “Only the Sound of People Thinking” is a very
    moving and well written piece. Is that a true story,
    or part fiction? Either way, I think it aptly reflects the contextual psychology theme in the book Outliers.

  • @Ross, David, Amit, Justin and OWO:

    Thanks for the added insight. I think each of you bring up great points. There’s no doubt that we have a choice over our actions. But sometimes we don’t even realize we have a choice until it’s too late. And sometimes these actions are directly related to a series of reactions and consequences, and sometimes the relation is far more indirect. In any case, it’s important remember that we are both the product of our efforts and intentions and the environment which shaped us in our younger years.

    Oh, and for those who asked, true.

    I hope you all have a great week.

  • Wow. Touching story. I can’t resolve it in my head at all… On one hand, the victims of his crime have to have justice, yet… he reformed himself and became a better man in the end.

    Know what I think he would say? I think he would accept his punishment, because he would acknowledge that he did some terrible things. He seems like the type of man who would take responsibility for his actions despite his bad upbringing.

    And, if he can find peace in his punishment… I can accept it too.

  • The most powerful post I read today. Thanks for writing it Marc. It raises questions that are meant to be raised, that must be raised and that must be thought about and then done something about.

    Simply loved this post. great job.

  • Thanks Marc, very powerful story.

  • Hi Marc,

    Your writing always amazes me. I loved how you wrote it, this story got me (and others im sure) thinking of what it means to truly appreciate life before doing anything to mess it up.

    Thankyou for your time and effort,

    -Parker

  • So moving and yet so tragic. Life finally caught up with him and he was helpless to change that one part of it. But this story should gave everyone hope that people can and will change when we come to ourselves.

  • Touching story. Raises important questions in my mind.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Guys,

    At least he gave a new world to his daughters.. despite his bad upbringing. I’m sure he’s glad that he did…

  • Hi,

    Wow, powerful post - and one with some strong philosophical implications. Your writing amazes me!

    Keep writing.

    Niluka

  • Hi Marc,

    Wow for sure! Though I agree we all have to accept the consequences of our actions, I also agree that consequences are not written in stone. Two people can do the same exact thing and have different outcomes. 2 People can come from the same exact background, good or bad, and have different results.

    Consequences are, not always, but often are based on the persons and specific details involved in a situation. There are hard core revengeful types and there are merciful supportive types. To me, the reality of this man’s family history of being involved in the mafia should speak volumes to those involved.

    The deaths involved cannot be reversed. What good is it doing society for this man to go to prison. He’s not a danger to society. He is actually a benefit and positive influence. It would seem to me giving him a life sentence of speaking in schools about the realities of gangs and life of violence and crime would do way far more good than hiding him away in a prison cell.

    Marc, do you know where he is serving his sentence? I would love to send him a letter of support. Please email me if you do. Thanks.

  • This is another 50/50 case scenario with the law, all he had to do is present his life story and if the judge used his mafia actions then the worst case scenerio comes through which had happened. it also gets me think the ethical implications that may arise had he been freed because can you imagine how many life he screwed? may be he is paying up the action of his so-called mafia family. So yet again it’s another you-won’t-know-the truth-until-you-look-both-sides-of the-coin case, too bad the law doesn’t use common sense these days too.
    Enjoyed the post, Great post and good story.

  • Great post!
    Complicated story which makes us all think loudly.
    From the philosophical point of view, a lot depends on which ethics we’d choose to make decisions about the need of seeing him punished. Some would allow what was mentioned here, as a contextual psychology of course.
    But from the point of view of law, the only fair way for him is to be punished: and his victims to see him in jail.
    It was mentioned, he found his spiritual path, so I believe he’s calm now, knowing his family is doing ok, his after-accidence life was getting normal and realized as helpful to others. Hoping the jail he’d go to is human enough to give him the sapce to helping more to others - this might be a way to survive the punishment which came so late and unexpectedly.

    Marc & Angel, love your blog! =)

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