"Come on," Lesra Martin jokingly complains. "You want to know that, too?" The lawyer, author, motivational speaker and literacy ambassador for ABC Life Literacy Canada perches on the edge of a sofa in the lobby of a luxury downtown Toronto hotel, feet flat on the floor, hands on armrests, positioned to bolt.
"I'm 48," he replies obediently, seconds later, as if giving evidence in court.
Mr. Martin, a father of two who lives in Kamloops, B.C., has only 25 minutes to talk about his legendary life, which began as one of eight children living on the violent streets of a Brooklyn, N.Y., ghetto and went on to include fame as part of the legal appeal for Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer wrongly convicted of murder who was released from prison in 1985.
A stocky man, dressed all in black, Mr. Martin presents a gruff, no-nonsense exterior – a lawyerly wall of fast sentences and intelligent eyes – but as he's prompted to tell his story, a tenderness surfaces. He laughs gently, often with a suggestion of humility, as if he's flattered and surprised that someone is interested to know the psychological underpinning of a transformed life.
It may be a short exchange, but the interview unpacks a story that involves the inspiration of trees, a blind "angel" guardian, a near-death experience and a sense of grief that never leaves him.
At 15, he was illiterate. His family, once middle-class and thriving, had fallen on hard times and moved to the ghetto.
His father, Earl,had been a promising back-up singer with a doo-wop group, but drinking and smoking ruined his voice. His job as a foreman ended after a serious back injury. "He just got lost in the sorrow and misery of having lost everything," Mr. Martin says of his father's descent into alcoholism. His mother, Alma, who along with her husband had only a Grade 9 education, also succumbed to despair.
The second-eldest son, Mr. Martin was always keen to learn, especially in the aftermath of a near-death fall from a five-storey building when he was 12.
Like many children in the ghetto, he played on rooftops to avoid broken glass and potholes in the streets. One day, during a game of tag, he leapt across to another rooftop, clinging to the edge before falling to the pavement below. Paramedics initially thought he was dead. In intensive care for three weeks, he wished he had died, but then he vowed to work harder for better opportunities.
"I graduated with the third-highest mark in the Grade 10 class, but I couldn't read or write," he explains, shaking his head ruefully. The system failed him. Teachers passed students by giving them stars for good behaviour when left to their own devices during class.
He must have been well behaved.
"Yes, I was," he offers, laughing. When he summoned the courage to admit he wanted to be a lawyer, his teacher suggested he set his sights on being a garbage collector.
He would pretend to read to his siblings by picking out the few words he knew and making up the story. "That's what I thought reading was," he says.
While working part-time at a local grocery store to help his family with food and money, he met an elderly woman he called Grandma Costa. Legally blind, she lived nearby, so he helped her by carrying her groceries. A friendship formed. When the chance came for him to leave the ghetto and go to Toronto to get an education, she "put her trembling hands over mine and looked me in the face with her blind eyes and said, 'People can take a lot of things from you in life, but they can never take away a good education.'
"I believe in divine interventions," he adds. "How could I not?"
In the summer of 1979, a chance meeting with a visiting group of Canadian entrepreneurs who saw his potential led to an opportunity to live in their house in Toronto and receive a proper education.
"I remember the feeling that I understood a paragraph. It was a buzz in my head," he says, almost doubling over with laughter. "It was a sensation I had never felt before. I was using my brain." Until then, he'd thought he wasn't smart. "You become angry. It's not a great emotion," he says.
A year ago, he wrote a motivational book, The Power of a Promise, to help others overcome obstacles. "I used it as fuel of frustration and anger to get me to the other side."
But even after his life had been transformed, he struggled with emotions of guilt and fear of disappointing others. "Sometimes when things happen, you don't feel so good," he explains.
He laughs in response. "Absolutely, wholeheartedly."
He tried to bring one of his brothers to Toronto to offer him the same opportunity. "But it was one year too late. He had seen too much." None of his four brothers escaped the ghetto. The eldest died in prison. His parents both died in their early 50s. Only his three sisters have managed to live better than the way they were raised. "The ghetto is harder on boys," Mr. Martin explains.
In 2002, the National Film Board made a documentary about his life, The Journey of Lesra Martin. In it, he describes the spookiness of trees outside his window in the house he lived in with his benefactors in Toronto.
"I had never seen trees," he now explains gently. They are non-existent in the ghetto and he had never travelled beyond his 12-block neighbourhood. He discovered a birch tree in the Toronto backyard, and it became symbolic of the way to lead his life. "You can shed the past. You can't shake it. But you can certainly get new skin, You can grow and become stronger."
Once again, he responds with a belly laugh. "You should see my backyard. This year, we planted six or seven new trees. Trees are very special."