In the early ‘80s I owned a Victorian-style house in Richmond, Virginia. It was a lovely 2-story building constructed in the early 1900s. I used the downstairs rooms for our film production offices and I rented the upstairs rooms. My office was in the front of the building facing the street.
The neighborhood was located in between downtown Richmond and the main campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. Most of the businesses in the area were somehow related to the advertising industry. Graphic artists, printers, photographers and ad agencies. My building was located on Cary Street .. a feeder street for commuters to find their way to their office building parking lots. It was one way and had few traffic lights. Since there were few retail businesses within a 10-block range, you seldom saw any pedestrians walking by.
We didn’t produce any tv spots or programs at or near our office. It was just a place to sit by a phone to set up some appointments and do some basic editing. Our office was quiet and rarely had any visitors.
One late morning in the spring of 1987 an African-American man quickly entered our building. He was, more or less, about 5’8” and 160 lbs. He wore average blue collar clothing and had a short haircut. What distinguished him from most people who I occasionally crossed paths with was his demeanor, his style of breathing and his eyes.
The moment he entered my building I got up and met him in the hallway. He looked back and forth like a scared cat. The palms of his hands spread out as if he were a spider about to crawl up the wall. To say that I was a bit concerned would be an understatement. I started to breath heavy and, he was breathing heavy … “Mister, I was just let out of jail. I need bus money to get back to New Jersey. I don’t have any money and, I don’t want to hurt you. What can I do to make some money?”
Many of us are very jaded when we cross paths with seemingly desperate men. Sometimes we wonder why don’t they just get a job as a dishwasher. Or, a grass cutter? Or, some other menial job that can carry them over from day to day? Of course, my wife often reminds me that you need an address to secure a job and these people live on the street.
Clearly, this guy was desperate. He seemed to have an immediate need and a short fuse. I said, “Wait here.” I briskly walked to the back of my building and handed him a broom. “Sweep the steps and sidewalk outside my building and I’ll pay you.” He grabbed the broom, exited the building and proceeded to sweep the dust and dirt away. When he finished he re-entered my building, handed me the broom and stood still. I handed him some money. He looked down and thanked me. And, that was the last time I ever saw him.
What kind of society are we that releases a prisoner without any money, a prison record and few employable job skills? Well, that was the case in Virginia back in the 1980s. Hopefully, things have changed.