Earl "The Street Doctor" Best peeled the calendar pages back 28 years Saturday afternoon, taking a captive audience inside the Newark Public Library way back to 1983 when he was serving the start of a 17-year prison sentence for bank robbery.
"When I went in, thank God I was the squeaky wheel," said Best. "The squeaky wheel is I talked it back. If I seen a roach in the food, I told everybody not to eat. ...
"I was the squeaky wheel. So they said we're not going to let this guy stay in population. They put me in solitary confinement."
Although all of that time alone in incarceration could have broken him, it ultimately recreated the man affectionately known around Brick City as
"I was getting ready for this mission," Best explained.
From 17 years behind bars, to meeting the Dalai Lama this past May at the , Best continues to heal and help others with his generosity of spirit and tales of perseverance that are detailed in his fittingly titled autobiography, "The Fingerprint: Identifying the Real You," that fans were buying and having signed by the first-time author.
"'The Fingerprint' is my story, but it's more than my story,” Best said emphatically to the audience. "Everybody's got a fingerprint."
Growing up in Newark's South Ward, Best's mother prophesied him as an inner-city version of Moses, someone who would minister inspiration around his home city at its schools and along its hardscrabble streets.
Before this came to be, however, he became a product of his environment and ended up in prison; he still remember being read the Miranda Rights when he was arrested on June 13, 1983. Ironically, his book title stems somewhat from his days of robbing banks, when an exploding dye pack left a fingerprint that the prosecuting attorney’s witness said "could only belong to Earl Best."
Upon being banished to solitary confinement, Best initially struggled to maintain his sanity. "I was supposed to be crazier than a fruitcake," he said. One of the ways he passed the time was counting all 1,759 Rice Krispies in a box.
Another was a voracious appetite for reading. Best pored over pages of philosophy by Plato, law by Johnnie Cochran, life by Malcolm X. and J.A. Rogers — the latter's "World's Great Men of Color" serving as his "bible."
"When I was reading, I wasn't reading surface stuff," said Best. "I was reading to see what's up."
When he emerged as a free man nearly 10 years ago, Best was ready to trade his past for the opportunity to offer hope by telling his story in schools across Brick City. Although unemployed, he drives his van around Newark delivering blankets and food to the less fortunate – which is how he came to meet Alvin Perry earlier this year.
Last November, Best learned he would get to meet the Dalai Lama. Knowing this — and knowing Perry was a publisher — he pressed his new friend to print his autobiography. Although initially skeptical, spending time with "The Street Doctor" convinced Perry to green light the project.
"He was saying, 'I gotta put gas in this car, my phone's about to get cut off, people don't really understand what I'm doing,' " Perry recalled Best saying. "So, this homeless guy comes by and is digging in the trash can. Street broke our conversation and said, 'Hey, hey, hey.'
"So, the homeless guy puts the stuff back in the garbage can like he'd done something wrong. And Street is like, 'Yo, man, I don't play that. Let's go and I'll buy you something to eat.' I was like this guy is for real. He ain't putting on no show."
From his first keystrokes on Feb. 26, Best's autobiography was printed May 13, the first day of the Newark Peace Education Summit — where he met the Dalai Lama. Since then, he has sold more than 400 copies despite a limited release and gave out 75 to prisoners at places like Newark's Delaney Hall, a halfway house for prisoners about to be released into society.
There, one prisoner broke down in tears while recounting how "The Fingerprint" altered his outlook, telling Best, "I'm about to get out of here. I'm tired of shooting people."
It is a story of redemption that bears the fingerprint of Best's own story, one he hopes Spike Lee or Tyler Perry will turn into a movie someday soon. In the meantime, he will continue ministering his message of hope across Newark.
"That's what I'm trying to bring out of this," said Best. "If I can change, you can change."