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Like many authors of his stature, Rodriguez had heard from inmates before, but never from one who'd actually "owned the language," as he puts it. The intensity of Loya's stories moved him. "Joe was writing me from the 18th century, in letters of great density," Rodriguez says. "Letters about God, the devil; letters about staring in the mirror just moments before he'd go out to rob a bank, staring into his eyes, marshalling his will to commit crime."
For the final two years of Loya's sentence, the men wrote each other every week. They riffed on subjects from Irish poets to Mexico to violence. For Loya, who'd became a pacifist while he awaited his release, the correspondence brought him a freedom of the soul and bolstered his confidence to continue writing once he got out. "I'd get a letter from Richard," he says, tilting his head back in reminiscence, "and I'd read it fifteen times before I put it down. Then I'd go back and read it again."
Rodriguez, too, remembers the correspondence fondly, but recognizes it as the product of unique circumstances that cannot be repeated. "That Joe Loya is gone," he says, "and I'll never meet him again because that man doesn't exist outside of prison. Now, he belongs to this other society."
By the summer of 1996, Joe Loya Jr. had redeemed himself in the eyes of the penal system, but true atonement didn't come so easily. The ex-con's first impulse upon his release was to track down the people he'd victimized to tell him that he'd changed, that he was sorry for dragging them into the path of his chaotic youth.
Then life created a diversion. Rodriguez arranged a job for Loya as a Los Angeles-based stringer for the Pacific News Service, and gave his friend $3,000 to get started. Loya took to his new career with the same élan he'd shown for heisting. He focused at first on prison life, penning op-ed pieces that called for more compassion toward inmates. Much of Loya's writing, Rodriguez says, still obsesses on the death of his mother and what he calls the "sin against his father."
Yet instead of writing merely to purge his angry energy, as he'd done in prison, Loya took a more mature, pensive tone, not unlike that of Rodriguez. In one of his first published articles, Loya wrote about the perils of his new life outside prison for the LA Weekly:
The pitfalls for me are the everyday indignities the rest of you have learned to accept. The car that cuts me off on the freeway. The woman who barges into me while I wait in a grocery line. The obnoxious clerk at the DMV. The liar posing as a potential employer at a job interview. Or my devious neighbor.
Her. The one who substituted her clothes in my washing machine because she was in a hurry, and I'd gotten to the laundry room first. Several weeks ago I found my clothes, sopping wet, atop the rumbling machine I'd placed them in.
In prison this infraction would have been solved easily enough. I would have confronted the offending inmate with a sharpened piece of bedspring and I would have made him regret his insult, his foolish underestimation of me.
Instead, in my role as a "free man," I returned to my apartment and suffered what one writer has referred to as "the rage of the baffled." I became mousy.
The article received much attention, inviting phone calls from editors and agents hungry for his story. Loya's career began to gel. He moved up to become associate editor at Pacific News Service, and his articles started appearing in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
In the meantime, he made peace with his father. He had almost come to fisticuffs one evening with a man at a cafe -- a near-violation of parole -- and afterwards he invited brother Paul and Joe Sr. to keep him company and spend the night at his new apartment. In the morning, while folding up blankets, the three men shared a spontaneous embrace, the kind Loya had wished for as a kid. And when he and Diane tied the knot in 1999, his dad read from the Book of First Corinthians: "Love always hopes. It always perseveres. Love never fails."
Last year, Loya's perseverance as a writer paid off. He negotiated a $30,000 advance from HarperCollins for his memoirs, titled The Parole of Buddha Lobo, which he'd pitched as a cross between Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, a story about a bright Mexican kid raised in parochial schools, and Luis Rodriguez's Always Running, the tale of an East Los Angeles street kid who overcomes his violence to inspire others.
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