Nate grew up in Oakland, and never really had much of a chance. His mother was an alcoholic and when he was fifteen his father shot him up with meth. All he ever wanted to be, he says, was a thief, a con-man, a drug dealer or a pimp. He was a good hustler as a kid, scoring food for the family and clothes and bicycles for himself and his friends, and he had some success as an adult, hustling money, women and drugs. He says he never joined a gang except when he had to in prison, and never "terrorized" anyone by pointing a gun at them.

When I met Nate he was 53, living under a freeway, and walking five or six miles a day with his shopping cart, digging through garbage and back alleys to find whatever he could trade or sell to support his heroin and alcohol habits. He was different from the other homeless men I met because he seemed to be well-educated (although later I found out he had finished high school in juvenile hall) and when he discovered I had been a writer, he said people had always told him he should write. I said I could help. After I got to know him I told him he was smart.

Fed up with living on the street, Nate moved to Stockton to reconnect with his mother, who had a tiny extra room in a very small apartment. He tried to make a go of it, but it wasn't a situation that could last. He found a woman who, as he put it, was "stone ghetto," but they drank together, claimed they loved each other, and he moved in with her for awhile. Then one night he tried to steal a pack of razors from a corner store and got caught. The police discovered he had walked out of a court-mandated Delancy Street rehab program and sent him to prison to serve his old time: Five years. 

I have a huge file of letters now from Nate, from a  

prison in the Sierra foothills that funnels inmates to firefighting crews. If he gets the job he wants, cooking for the crews, Nate's life could be pretty good, considering. He says he's given up on his girlfriend because she got angry with his mother and put sugar in her gas tank.

Lately I've become friends with Nate's mother — a woman who turned her life around the day two Jehovah's Witnesses came to her door. Today she is clean, sober and just about the sweetest person I've ever known. Like Nate, she is well-spoken, and, like him, she writes beautiful thank you notes.