We are the Other - Easter Sunday, 38th & Chicago Bus Stop, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
Jaymie, who this morning was on his way to Word of Grace Baptist Church, grew up a block from the bus stop. After I asked him what his favorite word was he told me a story about his mom. He was with her when she was on her deathbed, a picture of Jesus hanging over her. “I thought she was gone,” he said, “but then her eyes opened and her face started to glow.” He told me that people don’t believe him when he says that her face glowed.
When he was nine his mom had a nervous breakdown and she was sent to a state hospital. His father wasn’t around so he and his two brothers and sister were separated, ending up at various orphanages and foster homes. One brother he never got to know, who was a baby when this all happened, called him out of the blue ten years ago. Some sixty years had passed. He said his name was Steve and that he now lived in Cleveland.
He has no idea what happened to his other brother who had polio and an iron lung. “Maybe he was adopted,” he said. I was going to ask him about his sister but then his bus came.
Jaymie worked at grain mills most of his life and made decent money. Keeping up with his expenses was always a problem though. When I asked him for his contact information so I could give him a photo he said that he’s homeless and is at a Catholic shelter. “I gambled too much last year”.
We are the Other - Jerry, South Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
When Jerry was a kid his parents would let him have any toy he wanted on his birthday and Christmas. But only one toy. “C’mon now!” he exclaims, some 40 years later, the anguish still in his voice. He would pore over the “Wish Books” put out by Sears, JC Penney and Montgomery Wards for his one present, which was often a piece of baseball memorabilia.
He got hooked on baseball cards when he was 12, winning them when shooting marbles with the neighborhood kids. During televised baseball games he would prop them up next to the TV, matching the card to the player on the screen so he could connect with them in a personal way. “Maybe I was the only kid who did that,” he says.
Then he went to college, got a job and could finally afford all the things he couldn’t as a kid. He worked twenty years as a sales rep for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and every time he got that commission check he’d head to a flea market, rummage sale, thrift store or antique mart, constantly adding to his conglomeration: toys from the 50s and 60s, Japanese Tin Friction Cars, coins, GI Joe, model car kits, Star Wars paraphernalia, and most of all, sports cards.
Because he would buy sports cards by the boxful faster than he could look at them, his attic is now filled with piles of unopened cartons. His collection consists of 300,000 baseball cards, and if you add all the basketball, football, hockey cards, it totals a half a million, not to mention all the other toys.
He delights in talking about the history and culture that his cards represent, and gives away a lot of it in an effort to share his wealth. He is now retired and spends six days a week, often several times a day, at the Blue Ox, getting online to trade and buy more stuff on eBay and other sites.
He never married. “I can’t imagine a woman who would put up with all this,” he says laughing. “I had a girlfriend. She kicked me out because my stuff was filling up her house. I don’t blame her.”
For this first time in his life he is displaying some of the results of his life-long obsession at the Blue Ox (pictured here) with a 50-piece exhibition that has a Minnesota sports related theme. He has another exhibition lined up at the Knights of Columbus in Bloomington, Minnesota. Next Saturday, April 7, from noon to 2 pm, Jerry will host a Minnesota sports trivia event at the Blue Ox. Anyone who orders a cup of coffee will get a free baseball card of a Hall of Famer.
We are the Other - Mo (Mohammed), South Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
Mo was a lightweight, having boxed in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Boston. “I was 130 lbs, skinnier than you back then,” he says. He had won three titles, but gave it up to support his four brothers and five sisters back in Iraq. After “running and fighting against Saddam” in 1990, he arrived in the U.S. as a refugee and ended up working 13 hours a day pumping gas in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
The owner had nine other gas stations, and one in particular was causing him trouble. “It was bad. There were fights all the time.” Mo talked the owner into letting him manage it. With hard work and a gentle but charismatic personality, he turned it around. “People trusted me,” he said.
Mo offered to buy the station and the owner asked for $70,000, but would take a $20,000 down payment. He paid $5000 a month and finally took it over in 1997, installing a grocery store that made it successful. But he was lonely. There were few Iraqis in the area and when a friend urged him to come to Minneapolis where there was a more substantial Iraqi community, he sold the gas station and left.
Soon after arriving he opened Lake and Park Grocery, a corner store less than a mile from Mill City Auto, where he visits the owner, his best friend Dan, just about every day (where this photo was taken). For two years he put in long days, “not drinking or partying.” He now owns two other grocery stores in Brooklyn Park and St. Paul and enjoys the fruits of his hard work, with an eye on sartorial appearance. “You’ve got to look good,” he says. “Because when you die you take nothing with you.”
We are the Other - Dan & Melanie, South Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
Melanie and Dan are both small business owners on the same block. She “slings coffee” and he’s a body man. When I asked her to suggest someone she didn’t know well to be photographed with, she thought of Dan, who comes in once in a while for coffee. When the three of us sat in his small office and discussed the chalkboard questions, much of their conversation turned to the financial and aesthetic challenges of their respective trades.
Dan was hooked when he drove his dad’s Peugeot 404. That was back home in Jerusalem when he was seven. He then knew he wanted to work on cars the rest of his life. He was sixteen when he bought his first car, a blue 1973 BMW. German cars has been his specialty ever since.
After learning the trade from an uncle, he opened an auto body shop in Jerusalem 24 years ago that he still owns. He then started coming to Minnesota on vacations to visit relatives, but on one of the visits he fell in love with a woman, who was also born in Jerusalem, and decided to stay. They now have five children and he goes back home every couple of years.
Dan started working at Mill City Auto Body nine years ago near the corner of 38th and Chicago. I asked him if working on cars is different here than back home. “We did real body work there,” he replied. “Here they just change things.’ He explained that body parts were often not available there so he would have to, say, make a fender out of sheet metal, while here you just order the part. He was more of an artist then.
We are the Other - Reggie at 38th Avenue & 4th Street, South Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
This was the spot. Back in the day, some forty years ago when Jet Record and Crown Barber Shop were on the corners, Reggie would hang out with his boys doing the things bad boys did, smoking, drinking, singing, shooting dice, stealing potato chips out of a potato chip factory or beer and pop off a truck. “We weren’t a gang,” he says. Just the guys other moms would tell their children to stay clear of.
“Mom worked several jobs, but she didn’t have the money to go out and buy me a bike, so we stole them,” says Reggie. “Not that stealing is right.” He was in and out of juvenile detention, kicked out of two schools and ended up in jail for seven months before getting serious with his life. He worked construction for 30 years and is now retired. Many of his friends from those days are dead or in prison.
Reggie never married but he fathered four children, and now lives in a studio apartment with two of his boys, age 25 and 33. The younger one just got out of prison and he’s trying to keep them both off the street. He tells them the same thing his mother told him: “Give me my flowers now. Don’t bring them to my grave.” In other words, make me proud now instead of when I’m dead. When he says this to his boys they tell him, “Dad, you ain’t going nowhere.”
Changing Lenses is the product of an ongoing conversation between eminent sociologist Doug Hartmann, Ph.D. and myself. In each post, we exchange what’s seen behind a camera lens and what’s seen through a sociological lens to get at the diversity of perspectives and cultivate a unique look at the human experience. Below is my perspective. Read Doug’s reaction here.
Last November Bobby Hull opened the door of his modest home to a young Occupy Wall Street activist who was canvassing the neighborhood. She asked him if he knew anyone with foreclosure problems. Bobby, a 57-year-old plasterer and former Marine who had fallen behind on his mortgage after a series of health problems, said, “You’re looking at one.”
Three months later Bobby’s plight has gone national, becoming the forefront of the Occupy Homes movement with coverage from ABC News and the Huffington Post. Foreclosure Free Fest” that drew 300 supporters throughout the night, with a line-up of well-known local musicians who performed in his small living room and on a stage in his front lawn.
There were many that night that he didn’t know, but in this photo he’s sitting (on the right) talking to Reggie, who he met in the 7th grade. They both grew up in South Minneapolis. “We ran the neighborhood,” says Bobby. “We fought each other and fought everyone else. But that’s the way it was, you beat someone up and they end up your best friend.”
Bobby, one of nine children, has been in this house since his mother bought it in 1968. She ended up adopting five more before she passed away New Years Day in 1999. Bobby helped raise 47 nephews and nieces. “They all call me mean uncle Bob,” he says. “Children like discipline. It’s a sign of love.”
Having this kind of support seems miraculous to Bobby. “It’s like I fell in the mud and can now come up for clean air all the time.” According to a post six days go in the Huffington Post, Bank of America has offered him a mortgage modification that will allow him to keep his home, thanks partly to the Occupy movement.
We are the Other - Hai & Melanie at Blue Ox Coffee Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota (2012)
Melanie (pictured on the left) went through a litany of jobs (office worker, horse groomer, wedding photographer, Ritz Camera store manager) before she had the ambition to open a bar. Then she realized she didn’t like drunks and sticky floors and instead opened a “Third Wave” coffee house (the first wave was Folgers, the second wave is Starbucks) that brews coffee by the cup and treats it like fine wine.
“We have exact recipes for each cup of coffee for how long it’s brewed and with how much water,” Melanie says. “It’s all quality driven. We have relationships with our coffee growers. The beans, rather than picked by a machine are picked at the perfect moment of ripeness. We want to give you a satisfying and memorable cup of coffee.”
The first time Melanie spoke to Hai was when this photograph was taken. She had wondered about him since she opened the Blue Ox Coffee Company seven months ago, as she occasionally waved to him from across the street as he went about his daily ritual of sweeping the sidewalk and throwing cooked rice to the pigeons. She thought he might be Vietnamese. If he was, how did he end up on 38th & Chicago?
Did he grow up during the Vietnam War and witness atrocities? When a young man was stabbed to death last September just steps from the front door of her shop, she mused how ironic it would be that the barber came so far to get away from all that crap only to have this happen on his adopted corner.
Hai was curious about the Blue Ox too, and had been there once before, when Melanie wasn’t there, and bought a cup coffee. He hadn’t had coffee for a long time (and never drank it back in Saigon where the coffee is stronger), but he thought he’d give it a try and support his neighbor’s business. It kept him up all night though and he didn’t go back.
Hai’s chalkboard: When I come to the US, I don’t have not thing. With my bare hands and hard word I now own two barber shops.