Southern Dallas' Uncounted Workers

The feds say these people aren't in the labor force. That doesn't mean they're not working hard.

By working from dawn to dusk, they can usually make enough money to cover their $30 a night room rent, gas, some food, a little beer, a lot of cigarettes.

"This has been a hard week for me, my health and all," Paula Jean says late on a recent brisk winter afternoon. "Seems like my mind is having an argument with my body."

The recycling yards are closed. The couple is parked on South Lamar Street at an informal street-side bazaar, trying to make a few more bucks selling a crate of apples and oranges somebody gave them at the Farmers Market.

Wanda Joyce James
Mark Graham
Wanda Joyce James

"My wife is legally blind," Mike explains. "She has four terminal diseases. She hasn't been able to work at a job since she came home from the penitentiary in '94. She caught a stigma in her eyes, and that turned out to where she is legally blind."

"I have what they call histoplasmosis," Paula Jean says. "You get it from the feces of birds and cats." She says she also has diabetes, HIV and a large undiagnosed tumor on her belly, which she shows by pressing a hand against her pants.

She says her stint in the pen came about after a man hired her and Mike to do some work and then paid them with a check signed by a third party. "I went to this 24-hour check-cashing place and signed it over and gave them my ID."

She says the check turned out to have been stolen in a purse-snatching. She escaped robbery charges when the victim of the purse-snatching told police Paula Jean was not present at the robbery, but she received probation for attempting to pass a bad check.

"I violated my probation," she says. She served 14 months for the parole violation. "When I got out, Mike and me had to go from hustling to get high to hustling to survive, if you know what I mean."

Mike says he is a former framing carpenter, unable to work at that trade because, "I came home from the penitentiary with a blown out knee." He says he went to the penitentiary because of, "a belligerent Class B misdemeanor that turned into a felony because of my priors. And the point was, two relatives jumped on me in my own home."

On this day in addition to the bad knee, Mike has a broken foot, untreated and wrapped in a plastic bag. He says, "I got that from her ex."

Brittle bones run in his family. "My mother fell three weeks ago, and I didn't know where she was at for three days. She fell and got up and fell again in her bathtub. They had to put concrete in her back now to put her together, because she has brittle bones. So everybody in my family has had really bad osteoporosis and bone problems. She's 77 years old."

Even though their marriage of 33 years has suffered hiatuses for prison terms and other partners, Mike says, "We always got back together." They complete each other's sentences and laugh at each other's jokes.

Paula Jean beams when she tells how clever he is. "He just looks like that. He is smart. That brain. I tell you."

Mike says he's good at remembering where the best cardboard can be found and at what hour, so that he and Paula Jean can be first to arrive for the good stuff. "You gotta catalog things," he says.

He loves reading. "I'm a reader like hell. I was a volunteer for The Colony library for like 15 years."

Paula Jean shakes her head indignantly. "When he came home from the penitentiary, they would not let him volunteer anymore."

Mike compliments Paula Jean for her looks. "She's American Indian to boot, that's why there's no gray." The Indian blood, he says, is why she doesn't look her 52 years.

"I really wouldn't," she says, "if I had my teeth. I got kicked in the mouth by an ex."

"That's the same one that kicked me in the leg," Mike says.

Mike is proud of his heritage. "Let me tell you how far we go back in Texas," he says. "My grandfather was William Eli Gilliland. Eli Gilliland, which is my grandfather's great uncle, was a wagon scout for Stephen F. Austin's bunch in 1832.

"My dad used to take me to the old library down there by the red courthouse. He showed me the maps with 'Gilliland trail scout' on them going that-a-way over into Palo Duro Canyon."

Dusk will fall soon. Paula Jean whispers to Mike, "We're two dollars short of room rent." But a moment later a man buys some salvaged oranges from them for five dollars.

"We got room rent and three dollars cash," she tells him, clutching the money to her breast, tears glistening like diamonds across the red of her eyes.

Nothing and Everything to Lose

Cedric Dotie and a couple of friends are drinking beer from brown paper bags in the afternoon at a picnic table in a fenced yard on Lagow Street a few blocks south of Fair Park. Dotie, 42, says he cannot find full-time employment because of a felony conviction and prison term for selling drugs not long after graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1988. He is supported by a girlfriend who has a good job, and he receives some income from working part-time for his mother as a caregiver.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

I used to work with a "Wanda Joyce James" about 10-12 years ago parking cars. She would be the right age for this person you interviewed to be her and I know she lived in South Dallas. Curious. 


sounds like most of them are doing what they choose to do.  good for them.  


I am trying to figure out what JS has done here.  Supposedly a journalist is someone who reads the news releases of various gov't and private organizations and then paraphrases them in the articles they write.  Sort of glorified sock puppetry.  

In this case, JS has gone out, pounded the pavement and talked to people, asking questions along the way.  Very curious and interesting enough for me to come back for more of this.  Whatever it might be, I would like to see more.

Jim Schutze is a liar.  Ok, maybe in his old age he's just confused.  Either way, he's dead wrong.  The dole is more lucrative than ever.  Welfare spending has increased year over year for as long as I care to remember regardless of the condition of the economy.  Check out this pack of "takers" brawling over a place in line.  Notice the new high end basketball shoes, clothes and expensive cell phones.


I have empathy for these people, having struggled financially all my life, but I've always had a work ethic, instilled in me by my mom and I've worked off and on since I was 12. I've bee fired, laid off, quit; etc. but I've never given up and panhandled. However, there are those with such mental conditions and those who are not willing to give up their addictions in order to work. Then there are the scammers who are so good at conning people that you don't know you've been conned till it's too late. I used to fall for these people. The problem these days is you don't know who's scamming you and who really needs help.


Perhaps these folks should be speaking to students, unless the students want to get into the car detailing/box folding/drinking beers while your girlfriend works business, in that case they should speak to them seems all but one started on this road from is the lesson...Go to prison - Go to car wash??

TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

Interesting peek into that lifestyle. I know a few hustlers that "work" under the radar.

My wife and I often chuckle about how much energy one such friend expends avoiding "real" work and what he could accomplish if he directed that energy in a positive direction. But, hey, he's sticking it to the man, I guess.

JimSX topcommenter


I did. They were not forthcoming on this topic. But you raise a fair point. By the way, if you were washing cars with a rag and bucket, would you report your income? Just asking. 


@JimSX @cantkeepthetruthdown I wouldn't be washing cars with a rag and a bucket. I've done various low paying jobs when I was younger though. I reported. And collected.

So in a sense it's better that they don't file. It's a few bucks less of other people's money being taken.