Picking up the pieces

St. Augustine resident copes with poverty, fighting disabilities and living life

By Ben McLeod | bmcleod@flagler.edu

On a rainy Thursday morning, I slammed on my brakes, almost causing the car behind me to smash into me. I was driving on West King Street, one of the poorest areas in St. Augustine, and I was looking for junk. It was for St. Augustine resident Jerome Richardson so that he could earn a few dollars to buy some food for the week.

The rain drops were flopping up the mud in front of Jerome’s shack, which is made up of four walls of plywood and sheet metal for a roof. He was nowhere to be seen and the lot was quiet. I began to worry, as surprising as it sounds, that this 47-year-old man was in danger somewhere. Why wasn’t he here? Jerome told me he would always be here.

This was the only day Jerome was not at home. For the past two months, I had been getting to know Jerome. He was always sitting in front of his house, working. Jerome is one of St. Augustine’s black residents who live across the railroad tracks on West King Street. He collects metal and copper from junkyards and dumpsters, and then sells it to Waste Pro, earning only a few dollars at a time. He takes pride in his work, and said it gives him self-satisfaction. “Junk is my life,” Jerome said. “I love my job, I love where I live, and I love being outside.”

I met Jerome through Mitch Heinz, founder of the Sandwich Mission. I went with Heinz, along with others, to West King Street one day to hand out sandwiches to needy families. Jerome was one of the people we gave the sandwiches to. “Jerome has introduced me to many families who needed these sandwiches each week,” Heinz said. “He has helped me build a strong bond with the neighborhood.”

The reason for all the charcoal and ashes in Jerome’s is his work. There are piles of dismantled televisions, motors and car parts. The piles of ashes are from burning the insulation off copper wires and metal pieces.
Jerome, like many residents, is affected by the downturn in the economy. “I am making less money now with the economy,” Jerome said. Jerome told me he used to make much more money from collecting junk a few years ago because prices were up. “It was $2 per pound for copper,” Jerome said. “Those were the good ole’ days, but now it is only 80 cents per pound.”

Jerome is fighting disabilities. He has a bad sciatic nerve in his right hip, and he also has constant spinal issues. His hip is the reason he cannot hold a job. “It hurts too much to stand,” Jerome said. “It also hurts too much to sit.” I never noticed his problems until I thought about it. Every time I came to talk with Jerome, he would sit, and then pick up his chair and move. Then, he would move again five minutes later. “I get sore from sitting for too long,” Jerome said. “I guess it is good I am self-employed so I can move around and do as I please.”

Jerome’s last job in St. Augustine was in 1995. “I worked as a cook at a restaurant, but it hurt to stand the whole time,” Jerome said. “I have been working for myself ever since.” I asked Jerome if he receives food stamps or is on welfare. “They don’t give me anything because I am only in my 40s,” Jerome said. “I don’t have an answer for it, but as long as I keep working and selling copper and metal, I will be fine.” Jerome lives alone.

Jerome said it does not take a lot of money for him to get by. “I have never had money, and it does not concern me to ever start having money,” Jerome said.

The first day I met Jerome, I was nervous and could not gear away from small talk. I was a bit frightened by him. Jerome looks like an NFL linebacker. He stands over 6 feet tall, and probably weighs over 200 pounds.

I asked him what he was doing when I first sat down with him, fearing for my life. “I am doing what you see me doing,” Jerome said. He was sitting outside his shack, enjoying the sun. I was afraid to ask him serious questions about his poverty, because I thought he would get upset and break me in half.

I finally had enough courage to ask Jerome about his health. “I have problems with my health,” Jerome said. “I have had five spinal taps, and man those things are painful.” A few years ago, Jerome was dropped from his insurance because of his health problems. “I can’t get insurance anymore because I just cannot afford it,” Jerome said. “I worry sometimes that I will get hurt and am not able to pay for help, but I try to put it in God’s hands.”

Jerome was married, and has six daughters. Three of them live in St. Augustine, just down the street from Jerome. The other three live with their mother in Jacksonville. I asked Jerome if he misses his ex-wife and the three daughters he sees only every now and then. “I miss my daughters, but I do not miss my ex-wife,” Jerome said. “She has her life, and I have mine.”

There is one day I met with Jerome that I will always remember. It was a Wednesday afternoon in March. He told me how he feels about living on the poor side of St. Augustine. “It seems like St. Augustine puts the poorest black people across the tracks so no one has to look at them, or worry about their shacks of homes scaring off tourists,” Jerome said.

Before I left Jerome’s lot that day, I asked him if I could bring him anything the next time I came. He wanted a six-pack of soda and a pack of cigarettes. I asked him if he would be working outside for the next couple of days. “I am always out here,” Jerome said. “You will see me out here every day, no matter what.”

I never found out where Jerome was that rainy Thursday morning. I had skipped class that day just to come and chat with Jerome. I had bought him a six-pack of soda, a pack of cigarettes and even risked getting in a car accident just to grab an old fan on the side of the road. Because I saw him the next day, I thought that maybe he hitched a ride to Waste Pro to sell his latest copper batch.

That Friday I gave Jerome a six-pack of soda, cigarettes and the fan. I found an old computer monitor in my house that had not been used in years, so I brought that to him as well. Within 10 minutes, Jerome had smoked two cigarettes, drank a soda, dismantled the monitor and collected the copper pieces.

One week later, Jerome was ready to go to Waste Pro. He had built a trailer for his work, so he could pile the copper and metal on it. He does not own a car, so he gets his neighbors or friends to pull the trailer when he goes. For the whole week, the pile of metal had been accumulating. It was exciting. After Jerome explained to me what his occupation was, I began looking for junk. I began going to construction sites and dumpsters for old televisions or electronics. I wanted to do anything I could to help him out.

Jerome sold over 2,700 pounds of metal in that trip. He made $47.
I found myself skipping classes to come to talk to Jerome. It was becoming less of a story and more of a friendship. I learned there was more to Jerome than the issue of poverty and the fact that he could not hold a job. I stopped gazing at his run-down shack and old clothes and began enjoying being out of my comfort zone.

I learned how funny Jerome is. He has an old, rusted boat in his lot that he is trying to fix up. I asked him what he was going to do with it. “I have that boat so the next time God floods the earth, I can float out of this place and be safe,” Jerome said. Jerome had a serious look on his face, one that I had never seen until this point. Then he looked at me and started laughing hysterically. “That was a good one,” Jerome said.

Because Jerome works outside, he observes a lot. Jerome said the only reason white people come across the tracks into his part of town is to buy drugs. “All that does is pain the community and give the city more reason for us to be secluded,” Jerome said. According to Jerome, poor people don’t have a chance to move out of rough places like his.

“I don’t have a chance,” Jerome said.

Jerome was born on the same street he lives on. He has lived in St. Augustine most of his life. He was an infant during the St. Augustine Civil Rights movement in 1964. Jerome said not much has changed. He looked at me as if he had known me forever. “I wish nationalities would join,” Jerome said. “This town is so prejudiced, and I don’t know how long it is going to take until more people like you come and sit down here with me.”

Jerome said Heinz has brought hope to West King Street with the Sandwich Mission. “Our community needed someone to cross those tracks and look out for us and feed us,” Jerome said. “I thank God for the Sandwich Mission because they feed more than 14 families in this area.”

I always knew Jerome is religious because of his references to God. Also, if he was not dismantling electronics or smoking cigarettes, he was reading the Bible.

Jerome moved to Americus, Ga., for one year because of religion. “I felt a calling from God, after my divorce in 1989,” Jerome said. “I was called to be an ordained minister and work as a pastor at a church.” Jerome did what he was told. He became an ordained minister in 1990.

“I became an associate pastor at Friendship Baptist Church, and also had a job up there as a janitor for a hospital,” Jerome said. Jerome lost his janitor job due to his hip problems, and decided to quit working for the church. He moved back to St. Augustine. He moved back to the street he was born on, and to the lot his family has owned for years.

Although Jerome is poor, he considers himself wealthy. “Love is worth more than money,” Jerome said. “I give a lot of love and I receive a lot of love from my neighbors.” One day, he looked at me and said that I gave him love. “I would have never thought a young white man would come across these tracks and sit with me and listen to everything I have to say,” Jerome said. “There needs to be more unity here in town.”

You can learn a lot about someone just by sitting down and talking. Jerome always told me something big was going to happen. He said he sensed Heinz was going to come and help the neighborhood with the Sandwich Mission. “Something else good is going to happen, I don’t know when, but I know it is going to be big,” Jerome said.

The most recent time I met with Jerome, I asked him if he was happy with the way he lives. “Sure I don’t have the best life, but I am happy, and wherever God tells me to go, that is where I will go,” Jerome said.

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