The Canadians approached Alma and Earl with their plan, and Earl flew to Canada to see where his 15-year-old son would live. It did not take him long to decide. Bushwick was a war zone. Lesra "didn't stand a chance if he stayed in Brooklyn," says Chaiton. "There was no way he would get anywhere."
When Lesra moved to Toronto in the fall of 1979, the effects of his ghetto life were manifest. He was malnourished and suffering a chronic infection that made his nose run and his eyes bloodshot. Antibiotics cured the infection; the Canadians' plump refrigerator, the malnutrition. But nothing would touch Lesra more deeply than being taken to an ophthalmologist and being fitted for eyeglasses. "I was blind," Lesra says, "and I didn't even know it. I had nothing to compare it to. The world was a blur."
His poor eyesight mirrored the state of his education. It was apparent that he could not attend public schools in Canada. "He was almost illiterate," says Chaiton. So he began tutoring Lesra at home. Since black ghetto English was Lesra's primary tongue, Chaiton says, he began teaching Lesra the King's English as if it were a second language. "I got a textbook instructing how to teach English to a foreigner," he says.
The Canadians read to Lesra from books such as Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, about the author's life in Harlem, and within a year they began urging him to read, on his own, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Lesra literally cried in fear of such a book, with its long words and serpentine prose, but the Canadians kept after him until, in the summer of 1980, he somehow was able to finish reading it. "The problem we had was not one of his intelligence but of the overwhelming feeling of inferiority he had," says Chaiton. "Overcoming those psychological barriers was awful."
Down in Trenton, meanwhile, Carter had been going through a sea change of his own. After his second conviction, he says, "I wanted to die." He had turned his face to the wall and withdrawn even further into himself. "I was looking down a long, dark tunnel," he says.
Carter saw and talked to almost no one, in prison or out. At his insistence, his wife, Mae Thelma, had stopped coming to see him. (They were divorced in 1984.) Carter hibernated with his books for three years. Then, on a sweltering afternoon in 1979, the summer that Lesra met the Canadians, Carter did something that he hadn't done in years. He went outside, to the yard, to escape the prison heat. "I was looking at the big wall, 30 feet high, with gun towers, and suddenly a light lit up, and I could see through the wall," he says. "No, it was not a hallucination! I was amazed. As suddenly as it appeared, it disappeared. I had heard about these things. So I began reading about Eastern religions. And I began growing my hair, something I hadn't done in 20 years. And I cut off my beard."
That was the Carter, softened around the edges, to whom Lesra wrote his letter in 1980. "I was leaving me, and I didn't even know it," Carter says. "I was opening up. And suddenly this letter came. How could I not respond? His letter had so much energy! There was a feeling there.... I typed a reply."
Thus began a relationship tying the man to the boy and the Canadians, a relationship that would ultimately change Carter's life. He and Lesra exchanged several letters that fall, and Lesra suggested visiting Carter when he was home in Brooklyn over Christmas. Carter hesitated; at Trenton visitors met prisoners in the abandoned cells of the former death row, next to the execution chamber where Bruno Hauptmann had died after being convicted of killing the Lindbergh baby, and Carter did not want to expose Lesra to this unearthly grimness. "This face is trying to get there and not bring another face here," he wrote to the family. "So if Lesra wishes to come—he will."
For Lesra it was haunting to step inside that tomb. He had a powerful sense that this was the world he had escaped when he went to Canada. "When I heard those steel gates closing behind me," he says, "I thought, I could be in here." Carter could feel him trembling when they embraced. The boy told the man about his family in Brooklyn and his new life in Canada, about his studies and the books he was reading. He was working on weekends, sending money home to his relatives, but he felt guilty for leaving them and accepting the chance he had been offered. "How did I deserve escaping that?" he asked Carter. "Why me?"
"You never deserved to be there in the first place," Carter told him, "so you don't have to feel guilty about getting out."