The other morning I was on my way to work, hurried, tired and hungover. Inevitably, I had to stop for gas. It was one of those mornings we all know and love. I pulled into the Chevron on the corner of Piedmont and Ponce de Leon, swiped my credit card and went about my business. While filling my car up in a foggy haze, trying to recall how many PBRs I’d upended the night before, a man approached me wearing a jacket with SECURITY printed on the back. You know, the kind they give to bouncers at Buckhead nightclubs so they feel all official and shit.
When he opened his mouth a whole lot came out. It might have been the drugs (judging by the way he was grinding his teeth), but he spoke frantically. His name was Richard, and he didn’t want my money, just a job. I explained to him that I couldn’t give him employment on the spot, but handed him a dollar instead.
I’ve realized over the years I’ve spent in this city, that the homeless in Atlanta are far different than any other American city. In New York they’ll offer to wash your windows, in LA they won’t even speak to you, just hold up a sign and hope for the best. In Atlanta, they’re unapologetic in trying to get anything they can, and here I was talking to the Hope Diamond of homeless Atlantans, Richard. The man who wants a job.
I asked him what landed him in such a desperate situation. Richard informed me that he had just been released from prison. He served five years for a drug conviction, I’m assuming one of of many. I give him credit for his honesty – at least he didn’t make up some story about trying to get back to Gwinett county to see his kids. He actually told me he was a felon.
He had managed to take MARTA up to the city after being released from the slammer and currently resides at the homeless shelter on the corner of Piedmont and Pine. You know, that scary place that looks like a bunch of extras from The Walking Dead took a smoke break. It was the nice folks at the homeless shelter that gave this ex-con his security garb and sent him on his way.
He mentioned as I let him bum a smoke that he had been standing at the Home Depot down the street looking for work but, “All they hire are those damn Mexicans.” I tried to laugh off his racial insensitivity, and changed the topic back to him.
We all have dreams, and Richard wants to work construction, either hanging drywall or laying tile. These are the things he he did before doing time. He’s not a crazy veteran, a degenerate or some rich, white trust fund kid trying to occupy a bank to prove their lives can have meaning. Richard is a man, who made a mistake, and wants a second chance. He wants to work, just like a lot of Americans do these days.
Unfortunately, his life now consists of wandering Ponce, looking for work in a security guard jacket. The system took Richard, chewed him up, spat him out and left him with nowhere to go but back to the streets and the drugs that landed him there in the first place.
Our conversation and cigarettes were about finished when a man in a pick-up truck loaded with lumber pulled up. A look of hope came across Richard’s face as he scurried over to the man to ask for work. Unfortunately, the man wasn’t a contractor just some guy doing some home repairs, maybe a guy like Richard, if he had made different choices.
As he slowly walked back to the corner, I realized I’d spent more than I had planned to on gasoline. Putting myself in a budget crunch for the rest of the week was worth it. It’s rare that I meet someone on Ponce who can actually hold a conversation with someone other than themselves. As I was already running late before we had met, I quickly asked Richard if I could take a picture with him so that I could tell his story. To which he replied “I don’t need anymore mug shots. I’ve learned my lesson”.