Mickens was released five years ago, with an entrepreneurial spark just as bright. No longer the kingpin of an extensive cocaine cartel in New York City's borough of Queens, this time Mickens is the owner of The Tommy Experience. For a living, he is an aerobics instructor to senior citizens.
The skills that turned Mickens into the drug lord of Queens have lent themselves well to his new profession, Mickens told AOL Jobs. "I always had a good personality. I was good at communicating," he said.
In his first ever interview, Mickens told The New York Post one of the most striking turnaround stories since President Nixon's hatchet man became the handyman of God. Mickens was so infamous in the 1980s that rapper 50 Cent paid tribute to him in his song "Ghetto Qu'ran."
Mickens ultimately served 20 years in prison for drug dealing, money laundering and tax evasion. By the time he got out, in 2008, he says that he was utterly broke -- whatever wasn't forfeited to the government, friends and family mismanaged into thin air. After working in construction for a few months, Mickens decided that he wanted to do something bigger, something "to make up for all the communities I hurt."
'It Makes Me Feel So Good'
Catching up with AOL Jobs on his way to an aerobics session at a senior center on Tuesday, Mickens explains how he felt that running fitness classes for seniors was the best way to give back. "When someone tells me they went to the doctor and their blood pressure is down, their cholesterol is down, it makes me feel so good," he said.
Mickens says his mother died of a stroke while he was was behind bars, and that he feels as if every class somehow makes up for the fact that he wasn't there. "Every person in that class is my mother," he says. "My [step] dad."
While he's abandoned the extravagant lifestyle that his prosecutor claimed was his downfall, Mickens isn't doing too shabbily. He claims that he earns six figures, a monthly haul between $8,000 and $10,000, and is hoping to expand The Tommy Experience coast-to-coast. The New York Times: "He didn't really smell of the streets."
By all accounts, Mickens was a clever kid. He managed to hide his drug profits behind the cover of legitimate businesses -- Montana Dry Cleaners, Montana Grocery -- all branded with his street name Tommy Montana, an homage to Al Pacino's character in "Scarface." An Internal Revenue Service investigator told The New York Times that they were only able to trace and seize a fraction of Mickens' assets.
Went Into Drug-Dealing To Support His Family, He Claims
Mickens said he built his drug empire because it allowed him to support his family, but that he stopped when he realized "I was harming more than I helped." According to the New York Post, that was two years before Mickens was busted. But it was really the trial that changed his heart.
He recalls the prosecutor urging the court to give him a life sentence, because "he's a role model in the community, and he's a bad role model."
"That's when I realized, if I'm going to be a role model, I want to be a good one," Mickens said. And now, as the father of a 4-year-old, that mission has more weight than ever.
"I don't want to be remembered as a street legend. I don't want to be remembered as Tony Montana," Mickens said. "I want to be remembered as someone who had a positive impact."
Thomas Mickens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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