Robert Sanchez at Mount Sinai.
(Photo: Eugene Richards)
Robert Sanchez began to suspect something was wrong in the fall of 2005. He could no longer make it up to his fifth-floor walk-up without stopping on the stairs to rest. His body felt bloated; his face looked puffy. At night, he had headaches so severe they woke him up. A friend drove him to Mount Sinai, and there, in the emergency room, behind a pulled curtain, a doctor delivered the news: His kidneys were failing.
Luck had always seemed to elude Rob. When he was 15, his father had died of a heroin overdose. At 17, he had been hit by a car, broke both legs, and missed nearly a semester of school. And then, at 19, he was arrested after walking out of a crack spot in Harlem, where he’d worked for a week translating for Dominican dealers. Though he’d never been arrested before, a judge sentenced him to fifteen to life under the old Rockefeller drug laws.
He spent the next fifteen years in prison, much of it at Sing Sing. By the fall of 2005, he was 37 years old, had been out of prison for three years, and was about to finish his time on parole. For the first time since he’d been a teenager, he was going to be completely free. Then he learned he had an aggressive form of kidney disease, and suddenly it seemed he might not have too many years left to enjoy.
Thousands of men and women leave prisons upstate every year and return to New York City. In 2001, this exodus included 20-year-old Felix Aponte, who’d just finished a three-year sentence for peddling crack. For as long as he could remember, he’d been getting into trouble. As a child, he’d cycled in and out of juvenile jail. By 15, he was overseeing a five-man heroin-and-crack operation on First Avenue. He broke so many rules while in state prison that he spent most of his time in solitary confinement.
Back on the outside, Felix reverted to his old ways: hanging out in bars, drinking beer for hours on end, getting into fights. “My whole mind-set was messed up,” he says. “I was very rebellious, very angry.” For him, prison had seemed like a rite of passage: His father had gone to federal prison for selling drugs, and as a child, Felix had made regular trips to Attica to visit an uncle locked up for murder.
Felix hoped to get his own life on a better track, but how to accomplish this was something of a mystery to him. He’d never held a job for long, stopped going to school at age 16, and hadn’t even been able to read until he taught himself in prison. In early 2002, a cousin told him about an organization in East Harlem called STRIVE that helps people get jobs.
One day Felix walked in and met with a counselor, who revealed that he too had recently left prison. There were other similarities: They were both Puerto Rican and had both grown up in the projects—Felix on the Lower East Side, the counselor in East Harlem. Felix didn’t trust too many people, but he immediately liked the counselor, who was thirteen years older. “We clicked,” he says. The counselor’s name was Rob Sanchez.
Rob had landed this job less than three weeks after walking out of prison. He’d made good use of his fifteen years away. In prison, he had earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s. He’d developed a talent for writing poetry, too; fellow inmates dubbed him “the poet laureate of Sing Sing.” Now, at STRIVE, he tried to keep other men from repeating his own mistakes.
He was so devoted to his job that he made himself available 24/7; clients called him at all hours. Soon Felix joined his caseload—and called whenever he felt tempted to do something wrong. “Do you want to go back to prison?” Rob would ask. “You’ll be alive, you’ll be breathing, but you’ll be dead to the world.”
After giving Felix advice for nearly three years, Rob suddenly stopped hearing from him altogether. He had a feeling he knew where Felix was: back on Rikers Island.
With some 7,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney in New York State, it can take six or seven years—or longer—to find a donor. And so Rob did what everyone does: He took a hard look at his family and friends. Surveying his options, he realized he didn’t have too many. His mother, who had once worked as a seamstress, now had a nasty drinking habit and suffered from cirrhosis. His sister had been a beautiful 16-year-old when he left her; now she was a drug addict. And his other sister, perhaps the most obvious candidate, never offered, and he never asked.