David Travis Bland
On the corner of Millwood Avenue and Gervais Street in Columbia, South Carolina, a man yells for my attention as he walks across the street. He’s pushing a small grocery cart with one crumpled soda can and a long wooden stake. When he gets to me I think he’s homeless and asking for money. What else could he want from me? I’ve got nothing I could give to this guy. But I can’t understand him. He has that old folks’ voice that cuts all the words short.
“Sorry man, I don’t have any money on me,” I say.
“I didn’t ask you for no money… I need some help.”
I ask him what help he needs. No matter what it is, I think, I’m not going to be a part of this guy’s scheme. He says, “I gotta get this fridge out this dumpster up the road.”
I’m struck mute by this coincidence. This is the man I’ve been looking for.
Every day, trucks piled with twisted, rusted metal drive through the streets off of Millwood Avenue, my neighborhood. Through the windows of my girlfriend’s upstairs apartment, I watch beat-up vehicles pass by as I search the Internet for work. They’re driven by scrappers—folks digging for money in the discards of abandoned houses, college rentals, and duplexes. Some of the trucks I’ve recognized parked around my neighborhood. Scrappers live here, work here, as if the place is a sort of post-industrial mill village where the only fruits that labor can bear reside in remnants of metal and former lives.
Since I haven’t been able to find a job I’ve given myself one—write a story about these people who find money on the streets.
I come across an eighties pickup loaded with an old washing machine and follow it through a poor, black neighborhood. The driver slows at a heap of trash on the curb and leans his trucker-hatted head out his window. But I’m nervous about how he’ll react to a strange guy in a white truck asking to ride around with him.
I drive past his truck, and start to think this scrapper story is a bad idea. I’d had this vague notion that a story about people who worked outside a system of employment could tell me about the place I found myself and maybe lead me somewhere. This seems desperate and idiotic now.
I’ve driven for more than two hours, burning gas I can’t afford, trying to find a scrapper to ride around with. I keep up the search, though, still hoping to find something more than a rejection email to show for my time. Going on foot might be a better plan, since the scrappers will have to approach me. After a couple of hours covering blocks in the heat, I haven’t seen another truck.
I’m frustrated and angry with myself. For the last five months I’ve failed to find a worthwhile job, and now I’m failing to complete my own assignment. In the time I’ve spent running around this neighborhood, I could have put in twelve applications.
A guy in a stained, red shirt and dirty, worn shoes, slowly pushing a shopping cart that contains a single, crushed can, approaches the nearby corner of Millwood and Gervais. I go get my truck, pull around the corner, and load up his cart. We get out of the thick, humid heat and into my air-conditioned cab.
“Man, you good people,” he says.
This is Good People Larry. He’s a scrapper.
Good People Larry has me get into a dumpster piled with wet, ballooning garbage bags. He can’t do it himself. He’s not quite flexible enough anymore. Good People Larry has the gout in his left hand and his forearm’s covered in what looks like suntan lotion, barely rubbed in, that I assume is to alleviate the condition. He’s diabetic and has high blood pressure too. He tells me about these things and the pills he had to take to fight the gout, heaving out that he “had to buy them” and they didn’t even work. When he talks about these debilitating conditions he speaks plainly. We load up the fridge.
He wants to ride around scrapping. As we make our way around Benedict College, he tells me that despite his declining health, he hasn’t been able to get disability services. He looks around at the tilted houses and dusty yards that line the street. I find out he lives around this area of Millwood Avenue.
I ask him about scrapping. “Man, this is what I do… I been doing it a little while,” he says.
There’s no self-pity in his voice. He’s optimistic about today, seeming to stretch this disposition into his circumstance. He says again that I’m good people: “damn good people.” And in a strange, bastardized way, Good People Larry has an entrepreneurial persuasion towards scrapping.
“If you’re making a hustle and you’re so in a rush to get rid of it, you done lost something,” he tells me. “You see, money’s money.” Today, “we could hit this bankroll.”
He directs me to a street off of Two Notch Road, where a prostitute once gnashed her teeth at me in what I could only figure was a demonstration of her health and hygiene. He tells me he saw a microwave on a curb around here, earlier in the day.
I see a house with a heap of roadside debris dropped at the mailbox. Cars are in the driveway, and I wonder if the residents will come out and confront us. We dig through, but the microwave is gone. Some thin metal bars and pieces of a dismantled household item, maybe a small metal shelf, remain. Good People Larry picks them up, along with a raggedy suitcase he thinks he could use. We’re gone before anyone in the house even looks out the window.
He leads me through more streets until we’re in a wealthier part of town called Forest Acres, a high-end, inner suburb that connects to Millwood. “This is where I go make my money,” Good People Larry says about this area of town. Spotting something on the ground, he has me slow down.
“That’s money right there.” He opens the truck door and picks up some crushed soda cans.
I ask him what he usually brings in at the end of the day. He’s not sure.
“I usually make enough to pay people,” he says, by the end of any given week. “Ain’t nothing don’t run on water. I respect that.” This morning he’s had to pay an overdue electrical bill plus a hundred-and-fifty-dollar reconnection fee to get his power back on.
“You from South Carolina?” I ask.
Good People Larry looks straight at me. “Oh yes I am,” he says smoothly.
“All my life.”
When he poses the same question to me, I tell him I was born right up the road at Richland Memorial Hospital. He says “so was I” and grins about our shared past. The hospital stands just a couple miles from where we currently live.
As we near Millwood Avenue, I tell him I live close by.
“I didn’t know you stay on Millwood!” he says, as if we should’ve connected long before this moment. So far I’ve been his driver, an outside partaker in the hustle. But now I’m his comrade. Any time between my birth and the day I started living off of Millwood is irrelevant to Good People Larry. We were born in the same hospital and we live in the same neighborhood. We’re like brothers.
He tells me I’m good people again and asks if I drink beer. Of course I do.
“You see, me and you, we see eye to eye. You gonna come over to my house, we drink sometimes,” Good People Larry says. He asks me what I think of our area.
“I like our neighborhood. Me and my girlfriend live here.” I tell Good People Larry that “I used to play music” before I decided to move in with my girlfriend to recover from the ramshackle life of being a dude in a band. He nods his head a bit.
For both of us, Millwood Avenue is a type of asylum. From the confines of my girlfriend’s apartment, I scrounge the internet to dig me out of debt. Good People Larry scrounges the streets of this place, and, at times, despite his obvious local pride, he seems to feel locked up by them.
As we drive into the Lyon Street Community, Good People Larry grows quieter. The excitement and optimism has left his voice. He’s under Section 8 and in a housing program that’s placed him in an apartment building by the neighborhood. “You know how that go,” he says to me.
On the street, a person is staggering, loose-limbed, into and out of someone’s yard, trying to walk. Good People Larry watches him. “This neighborhood’s been a rough neighborhood. I stay on this side and don’t like it.”
He looks away from me out the passenger side window. “It’s a world of trouble, nothing but drugs,” he says, mumbling, as he stares toward a row of rotten wood houses—each a different color of chipping paint, one strewn with dirty, plastic children’s toys, another with a broken, hanging porch door.
These two miles of Millwood that we’ve been driving is divided by King Street. On one side is Melrose Heights, where I live; a middle-class borough of homes and upper-end college rentals, along with some more affordable housing. The other side of King, where we’re at now, is different. This neighborhood has a reputation—the desperate part of town.
A bent, rusted sign hangs on a street corner, welcoming us to the Lyon Street Community in faded blue letters. I’ve never called the area by its name. To me it’s always been “the ghetto,” and Good People Larry laughs in agreement when I say so.
While riding on King, between the neighborhoods, we both see a huge scrap pile at the curb of an empty lot. This could be the bankroll Good People Larry is hoping for. The pile looks like wood, mostly, but as we get closer we can see large metal items.
“I can’t let that money get away from me,” he says.
We start digging through the pile. Watching Good People Larry flipping over broken boards and tires, I can’t help but think of my own experience. I’ve felt desperation before, but it seems to have touched my friend in a way I’ll probably never know. He asks me to grab a rusting spare tire rim and I put it in the truck.
I don’t think Good People Larry would ever say what he does is desperate. I can’t hear those words coming from his mouth. He’s got no pity for himself and doesn’t ask for any. Scrapping is his job, and from everything I’ve seen, he does it more enthusiastically than many folks I know on salaries. This is his entrepreneurial endeavor while his health won’t allow for work and social services are out of reach. He may not be making it easily, but he’ll tell you, he’s making it.
He grabs some piping and some crushed cans. He can’t pick up the heavier stuff because of the gout affecting his hand. I load up a heavy metal grid of bars laced with dead, wooden vines. After that, my truck is pretty full. Good People Larry seems happy with what we’ve got.
“It’s been a blessed day,” he says.
We head towards his apartment. Cars honk at us while we drive down the road with my tailgate open, heavy metal objects hanging out the back, clinging by friction alone. He tells me he’s trying to get food stamps. I tell him all the documents he’ll have to bring to the DSS office, and that he needs to write his name, social security, and case number in the corner of each paper; that he’ll have to bring the forms in person, mailing won’t work. That he may need to call to verify information and to do so at eight in the morning right when they open; any other time and the lines will be busy. Also, when he has to recertify, he’ll have to drop a form in the little yellow box in the lobby of the office, as mailing that won’t work either. I remind him that I used to be in a band. “I’ll just get up and go on down there,” he says.
I turn into the pothole-filled parking lot of his Section 8 apartment building. The paint on his door has nearly all chipped away. A few pieces still cling. The bottom is rotten and splintering. I start unloading our haul, following him through the door.
Inside, his entire place isn’t quite the size of a two-car garage. A dusty, glass-screened television sits on a long wood crate turned on its side, probably something he found. The room has a blue couch and a table covered with playing cards, ready for solitaire.
“You good people,” he says again as I put a large set of metal bars in the small alley outside his back door.
There’s nothing special when we say goodbye—no personal moment where we solidify our friendship with a tightly gripped handshake or quick back slap. He doesn’t have a phone, so I tell him I might stop by another time to have a beer.
“Alright,” he says.
When I leave his apartment I tell him I need to get back to work, meaning I need to get back to looking for work that will give me an income. Good People Larry, though, doesn’t need help getting money. Good People Larry’s a scrapper. He knows money’s in the streets.
David Travis Bland lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He is a journalist as well as a published nonfiction, fiction, and poetry writer. He has worked with many diverse publications in the southeast. His writing focuses on the modern Southern experience. Currently he is a content producer for Free Times, Columbia, South Carolina’s, largest weekly newspaper and Scene SC, a publication covering entertainment in South Carolina.