Those of us who were not born rich — and those who were born rich but cursed with a work ethic anyway — have a sort of ongoing assumption about what it takes to survive. We may believe that if our resources ever dip below a certain line, we may not survive at all.
But among us are souls who do survive in spite of having no resources at all or at least what we might consider no resources. So how do they do it? How does one live on nothing, without a job, without assistance?
It's not an academic question. In this city's traditionally minority and poor southern hemisphere, a truly staggering number of people fall into a category described by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as "not in the labor force." That doesn't mean unemployed. Unemployment is a different category: Those are people who recently had jobs, lost those jobs and are looking for new ones.
People "not in the labor force" didn't have a job before — at least not in the usual sense — do not have a job now and are not looking for a job any time soon. The BLS defines them as "all persons in the civilian non-institutional population who are neither employed nor unemployed." Nationally 35 percent of all working age people are in this category. In Dallas County it's 40 percent.
I looked at 50 U.S. Census data reporting tracts in southern Dallas. Two have more than 60 percent of their total population in this category. Seventeen are above 50 percent. For all 50 of the tracts covering most of southern Dallas, the average number not in the labor force is 44 percent, accounting for a total number of 67,304 souls.
The two that are above 60 percent are closest to the location where the city plans to build an expensive private golf course that will cost more than $150,000 per member to join. The city hopes the new golf course will spur economic development and improve the employment picture in the area.
All of southern Dallas will be targeted by a new $2.5 million job training program spearheaded by City Council member Carolyn Davis. The program, paid for with highway money and tied to major highway projects in southern Dallas, will attempt to use major public works construction projects as channels to draw people into the labor force.
Clergy and neighborhood leaders familiar with southern Dallas were frank in telling me that a substantial number of the population outside the labor force are young people involved in criminal activity. Some may be on the dole, but the dole isn't what it used to be. In this day, the number of people able to survive on public assistance alone, even including federal disability pensions, is probably modest.
So who does that leave? And how do they live? On the theory that people not involved in crime and not on the dole probably are the best candidates for a program like Davis', I drove southern Dallas and looked for people I thought might fill my bill. The only interviews I am not using here are those with people I suspected were criminals.
That didn't leave a great many willing to talk to a stranger about why they did not have a job. And even among those who would talk, the circumstances precluded a certain amount of vetting and normal reportorial challenge. I wanted them to roll with their stories. Where I was able to get details about prison sentences and prior work experience, I have included it here. You may find holes or soft spots in some of these narratives where that detail and corroboration are missing.
I wanted to hear them sing their own sagas without too many interruptions. These then are people in their own words. I must ask you, the reader, to supply the grain of salt where appropriate.
The Man Loves His Work
Dreadlock's real name is Nicholas Baleni Lake. He is 62 years old and works for himself, washing cars for anyone who will pay him in the coin car wash at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Myrtle Street eight blocks west of Fair Park. Dreadlock says he minds his own business. He has tried other work and prefers the car washing business.
"Well, I done haul trash. I done a lot of odds and ends. This is something I enjoy and love doing. This here, washing cars, detailing cars, I enjoy this. I love it."
He works seven to eight hours a day. He pays his rent and food bills on a daily basis. He does 10 cars on a good day. He has washed cars for 20 years since coming to Dallas. He receives no assistance but is hoping that may change some day. "I'm fixing to apply for a check."
Dreadlock is a widower and father of 16 children. "It's been what I been doing all this time. I do what I do. I suffer before I would let them suffer.
"I was born in the Bronx. I got neglected by my mother at maybe 8, 9 years old. So I stayed on the streets for about a couple years, maybe three years, all alone out here in the wilderness with the lions, tigers and bats as they say. All the time I just said to myself, I got to make it. I got to go through this."
Dreadlock's passage from the Bronx to Dallas included a long stay in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lived with two aunts. When the one closest to him died of colon cancer, he was grief-stricken and sought solace in a road trip with a girlfriend, even though he seems to have been married at the time.
"This girl I left Nashville, Tennessee, with, pretty as hell, looked like a Puerto Rican, yes sir, I mean real pretty, built like a hourglass, yes sir, that's the way it was.
"She seen I was frustrated and mad. She said, 'Let's ride,' so we got to riding. So when we got to riding, guess what. We gets all the way to Memphis. I said, 'Where we going now?'
"She said, 'Across this river.' She said, 'You ever seen Dallas on TV?' I said yeah. She said, 'That's where we're going.'
"Oh man, I lived good for several months in North Dallas on Mockingbird Lane. Real good. Seriously good. Then I said, 'Where all the fun at? Ain't no fun in North Dallas.' I got to walking."
He says he wound up at the car wash on MLK and has been there for 20 years.
He charges on a sliding scale. "If you're a friend of mine, I might give you a good price. If you're not a good friend, I might charge you, maybe anywhere from $25 to $30 dollars.
"I don't get aches and pains. The only thing I got is this hernia, you feel what I'm saying?" He holds his lower belly. "But I still apply myself with this. It's not easy, but all the time like I told you it's something I enjoy doing."
A Man of Respect
"Carwash," the only name he will give, is 62 years old. Sometimes he trundles a wheelbarrow of car washing supplies, which he calls "my dually," and sometimes he carries only a bucket and rag.
Carwash washes cars in the Dixon Circle neighborhood off Scyene Road four miles southeast of downtown, in an area described by police as one of the city's most dangerous. Today before he will grant an interview, he wants me to seek permission from the owner of the liquor store on whose parking lot he is working.
"Go in the store," he says, "and ask her and tell her what you're talking about and is it all right? That's respect."
Once respect has been shown and permission granted, Carwash will talk: "I'm independent. Before my parents passed away on me, my dad taught me independence. That goes back to family. It goes back in the Bible. If a man don't work, he don't eat.
"I am the last seed of the family. ... My family told me I was the one to go anywhere in the world and work. You know why? Because I know how to talk to folks and not lose respect. Respect comes first. It's all about living. You got to be smart about living."
Carwash says he collects about $3 for washing a car, which can take him two hours. He rents a small place nearby. "I got in trouble way back in the day, and I lost my house. It was a two-family affair, two sections of different families. I lost my house, because I was in jail. I wasn't there to stand up for me."
He says he receives no assistance. "I don't get food stamps. I don't get a check. I live however my parents taught me. I get out here, I wash me some cars. If this man right here gives me three dollars, and I wait until the end of the month, I got enough to pay my bills. A little bit goes a long way with me.
"Different folks they want to go get food stamps and different things like that. I have nothing to do with that, because I done it. I got sick. I had the worry ulcers, worried was I going the right way. I finally went and got me some food stamps. After that I cut it off. I don't need it. I'm a working man."
Carwash scoffs at the notion that young people sell drugs and get into trouble because they can't find honest work. "Listen to me, listen to me. That's just what they want to do. It's what they want to do anyway."
He says he has never been married. "And not got no child support on me from nothing, but I took care of my family like I'm doing now. I got a couple kids, but they're well taken care of and know how Daddy's living. Daddy is independent. I'm out here working. I'm not begging."
Working Outside the Box
Mike Gilliland is 55. His wife, Paula Jean, is 52.
"We're out here hustling cardboard," he says.
"We're professional Dumpster divers," she says.
They salvage cardboard boxes from back lots of restaurants and stores, flatten them and jam them into their small red sedan. A carload takes one to two hours of hard work to gather and deliver. Each load brings about $10 from the recycling centers.
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.
"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.
The road from high school to the penitentiary was short and swift: "Mamma and Daddy were on drugs. It was all about survival. Either eat or get ate. That was the only thing I knew at the time. Because you know, fresh out of school, I didn't know nothing. You know, book sense don't carry you far in the work world. When I first got arrested, I was 19. I didn't know anything. I was young, dumb, out in the street."
Going to prison and growing up changed him. He says no one could make him commit a crime now. "I'm not going to let nobody force me to do that, because I have kids, I have a granddaughter, I have great nieces, great nephews. I got a lot of kids that look up to me, that rely somewhat and depend on me to be around, so I can't commit any crimes to get myself in trouble to take myself away from them. You tell me to do something wrong, you might as well shoot me, because I'm not going to do it.
"I came up with this phrase and a lot of people find it hard to understand when I say it. I tell them, 'I don't have anything, but I got a lot to lose if I go back to jail.' I ain't got nothing, but if I go back to jail I done lost a lot — my family, my friends, my woman. I done lost my freedom. Ain't nobody can force me to do that. Before you can, I'll make you kill me first."
Tomekia Jones, 32, and her mother, Wanda Joyce James, 54, are a full-time car washing and detailing team at the coin car wash at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Myrtle Street in South Dallas. They don't work for the car wash owner or pay him rent. They approach people who drive up and also have regular clients who bring cars to the car wash to be detailed by them. Tomekia says she could find work as a security guard but prefers what she's doing.
"I'm actually licensed to be a commissioned security officer. I do have a career. But the type of person I am, I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to get out and have my own business for myself where I don't have to clock in on nobody's job, because I'm just that successful."
This is her second year at the car wash. "When I first moved to Dallas, I worked at Albertson's. After that, that's when I branched off and started working for Walmart distribution center. After that, that's when I branched off and decided to get my security officer license, and I still have it. It's still up to date and everything. I could go to work right now if I want to. And then that's when I started detailing cars."
She prefers detailing cars. "I'm my own boss. I like shining people's cars and making people's cars look good. I just like working for myself. I could make a lot money, however much I want to put my mind to and however much I set my goals to be. If I want to set my goal this month to make $3,000, I got it."
She has her own car and can drive to the homes of customers. "I don't only work on cars here. I have clients out in Duncanville, DeSoto." She is not married. She has two boys, 10 and 4. She works from 8:30 a.m. to as late as midnight. She says her sons live with their fathers, "because they are boys, and a man can raise a boy to be a man."
She says her sons will learn to work for themselves when they grow up. "They're going to be independent entrepreneurs as well, because both of my kids' fathers are contractors. My oldest son's daddy, he's a contractor and he has his own record label, and my baby boy's daddy is a contractor. They're going to have their own business when they grow up and take after their daddy."
She speaks in a hushed voice when discussing illegal activities in the neighborhood around the car wash. "Speaking for myself, and I can speak for some of these others as well, we are out here trying to work and make an honest living. We don't have to steal. We don't have to rob. We are out here working."
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Her mother, Wanda, has done lots of work over the years. "I done did housekeeping, laundry." She, too, prefers washing and detailing cars. She says the big SUV she and her daughter are finishing up after two hours of work will bring in $35, their top fee. "The bigger the car is, the bigger the money goes."
She says the money they make is enough. "I got everything to pay, food and everything. But I'm blessed. God blessed me with everything that I need, and I thank God for it. I don't suffer from nothing. I thank God for what he give me, and that's the miracle of being alive."
She believes many of the young people around her could profit by the example she and her daughter set for them. "They need to sit down and teach some of these kids how to work and do things.
"I survive by this hand and our father, no more, no less. I'm blessed when I got it, and I'm blessed when I don't. And I got patience enough to thank God for what he give me."