“We must like each other,” says Francena Griffith, 57, “we’ve been friends for 35 years. And I don’t think we ever had a cross word between us.” She is speaking of Ceretha Griffin, “just call me Bubbles,” she informs us, and the two of them have created Just Folks, a community service organization that helps citizens of the projects and inner-city with a wide variety of volunteer programs. They find rides for the elderly to get to their medical appointments, they mobilize car pools so that their constituents make it to the polls to vote, they have women’s health education classes and provide child-care services and training classes for unwed, pregnant mothers. They have organized tutoring services, literacy programs, helped to build safe playgrounds and beautification projects for the needy, as well as refurbishing the park where our interview is taking place. They are orchestrating a series of historic murals on the walls that overlook this small park in the center of a sprawling series of intersecting streets and cultures. In the distance are the police station, the courthouse, the arts museum, the firehouse, and the finest theater in the area. But somehow this little backwater called The Block, alongside Market and Eagle Streets has always been a place known for the small coveys of drug dealers, prostitutes, and all types of unsavory characters. “I grew up on Eagle Street,” says Ceretha. “I know what goes on down here. I put my own elbow grease into these murals, and helped to choose the historical events that are depicted here. I recruit hard to get help for this organization. It’s part of my soul.” Francena grew up in nearby Montford, an only child and heir to two generations of bootleggers. “My granddad kept a big pot of shine on the kitchen table and folks would come in and dip in their cups and leave their money in a jar by the door. Nobody messed with my family. They knew better. We ran the numbers games on the other side of Mt. Zion Church.” Francena’s activism grew out of her long employment search. She worked in food service at Disney World, and has done catering, but has been unable to find a job for the last three years. “Ageism is an issue” she says, “People discriminate worse against older people than they do against minorities, it seems to me.” Bubbles joins in after she hears that. “African-Americans have a very hard time getting employed around here. We have lots of black politicians, and a black mayor, who’s a woman. Hell, we got a black president now. But these folks be skinnin’ and grinnin’, got one hand in your pocket, while they be patting you on the back with the other one. I really haven’t seen any change. I believe in Obama’s vision. But he seems like he’s trying to get along with everybody rather than to change the status quo. That’s his biggest problem, if you ask me. There are only two black-owned businesses still left here on the block, and I don’t see anyone doing anything to help minority business owners. Nobody. I just don’t trust public officials, never have.” Just Folks is the first African-American non-profit organization to adopt a park here, and to establish a food bank. Every Saturday for the past seven years, the group has sponsored festivals where there is live music and food served to the community, and Gospel Goodness every Sunday. “The homeless problem is getting worse and worse, and you know this administration continues to take away the funding for affordable housing,” says Bubbles, who takes a breath, points her finger and continues. “We need more love in the community. Tougher and sweeter both, with everyone keeping an eye out for each other’s children, policing them, keeping them straight, lifting them up.” At this point, Francena intercedes and agrees with Bubbles. “Kids today have no respect for their elders or for authority figures. The schools even want to tell us how to discipline our own children. I took a switch to school to handle a problem myself. The police tried to stop me, then they said they wished there were more parents like me, once we were outside. The police need all the help they can get.” Both women have three grown children, and both believe that if there was more focus on history, on the truth of their own history, that children would be more compelled to learn. Bubbles got the last word. “We need to start giving the history back to the children ourselves,” she says. “That’s the message of the murals in this park. We hope that our efforts will result in a published People’s History of this area, with a focus on things that our people can be proud of, what we’ve accomplished despite the forces arrayed against us. That’s the true history, the one passed among us, that uplifts the spirits of our young ones.”
Born in Ft. Bragg and stationed at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, driving petroleum tankers for the Army, 38-year-old Manuel Taylor has been on the streets for a year, “couch-surfing and whatnot,” and pushes his grocery cart from downtown Asheville four or five miles to the metal scrap yard in Biltmore every day. Some places have learned to look for him and if they have any scrap, they wait to put it out until he rolls by. He has made this into a living, averaging about $25 a day, some days more, depending on the size and quality of the metal detritus he accumulates. He says that “two felonies, for forgery and possession,” kept him from being able to get a real job, and that he was “too busy hustling” to apply for public housing or “any of that government stuff.” “I’ve turned my life around,” he tells us, “I might have jacked a Walmart, back in the day, if stuff was laying around the parking lot, but I’m a better man now.” He flashes a million dollar smile and leans on his cart, “this stuff here is just like freemoney.com, know what I mean?” Before we can drive away, he is already singing under his breath, and pushing his overloaded cart, which resembles some ramshackle church organ, toward the scrap yard.
When we enter the doors of TRUE GOLD, which is a US standard gold buyer, with 12 stores scattered across TN, we are greeted by Sheree Dixon, 30, who greets us warmly, with a beautiful smile. In each box, largely painted black, with a dark carpet and moody lighting, sits one manager who cannot haggle. She pays a standard percentage of the market price for gold and silver jewelry and coins, tea sets and flatware, bars and ingots, and of course, dental gold, which must be “yellow gold,” not faux white. At one point, the price of gold was over $1895 an ounce, but has fallen to about $1500 now, and it still falling, which Dixon takes as a sign that “the economy is slowly starting to turn around. But people are really hurting,” she says. “It breaks my heart to hear their stories.” Dixon had previously worked for Citibank in Customer Service, but she had medical problems, related to her appendix, and then her gall bladder was affected, requiring surgery. She was then told that she had a short-term disability policy at the bank, and if her medical problems kept her out of work for more than 90 days, they would have to let her go, which they did. Dixon had worked for the company for three years. She gets emotional talking about it now. “How can people help what emergencies occur in their lives?” she asks us. “How could I know how bad my health would get, or what might happen in the future?” When I ask her if she is married, or has children, she tells me no, that she felt all alone through her ordeal, and that now she is focused on saving some money and getting healthy. “I want to be ready for the right man, and ready for marriage and children. I want my mind and my body to be ready.”