MAXWELL:  Men who won’t let their butts get rusty
6/12/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

If you frequently drive in any of the nation’s major cities, especially in the South, you often see them. You may even have had the unpleasant experience of being stuck in traffic behind one of them. I had that experience Monday in St. Petersburg on Fourth Street N and 83rd Ave.
I am talking about being trapped behind one of those smelly, smoke-spewing pickups. You know the ones I mean. They are 20 years old or older, and they _ like their owners _ are beat up from hard work. They have wobbly, wooden sideboards. They have engines that roar or rattle, and duct tape holds some parts together.
Their beds are loaded down with every variety of plunder and machinery imaginable. At least one operable lawn mower is in sight. You will see the handles of rakes, shovels, hoes, sling blades and post-hole diggers sticking into the air. Some have bad springs, making them lean to one side as they plow along. Their windshields are cloudy and sunbaked.
Who drives these anachronisms? Most are black men who are 60 or older. Many are illiterate and never found good-paying jobs in our mainstream workforce. As a result, they developed a stubborn self-reliance that borders on religiosity.
Many years ago, one of my uncles in Palatka summed up the world of these special men with his own example. “I just refuse to be unemployed,” he said. “I won’t let my butt get rusty and let my family go needing.”
Even now _ at age 81 _ he starts his 1963 Ford pickup every weekday. With an old John Deere riding mower and power shears, he cares for 25 large yards a week. That is his main employment. On the side, he hauls trash and repairs lawnmowers.
In the old days, he and his friends gathered and cured Spanish moss that was used for a variety of purposes, including the stuffing for car seats. He harvested “deer tongue” (wild vanilla) from roadsides. Before the practice was banned by state law, he pulled and sold gopher tortoises.
The men I see here in St. Petersburg are cut from the same stock as my uncle. Regardless of the health of the mainstream economy, they will make a living. One, a 73-year-old, put two children through college by doing work that most of us would never do. He performs jobs as simple as blowing leaves off roofs and removing cobwebs and wasp nests from the outside of houses.
Whenever I need something done, I telephone one of three old men who are as dependable as Florida wildfires. I have a massive tree in my front yard. Whenever we have heavy rain and strong winds, a least one large limb falls to the ground. I call one of my men to remove it.
Whenever I want a watermelon (I often do), I do not go to a store. I buy from a black man on the roadside. One of them drives all the way to Levy County for his produce.
I always have been intrigued by these men because of their work ethic. They do not understand how today’s young black males, who have high school diplomas, allow themselves to be trapped in the pathology of joblessness.
My uncle has a son who decided to sell crack after losing his job at a paper mill in Putnam County. “That boy’s got a wife and three children,” he said. “He’s been to jail twice for selling drugs. He says he can’t find work. I told him he could cut yards with me, and I would split the money with him 50/50. He rather sell crack and go to jail and sit on his rusty butt.
“I don’t understand him, and I don’t want to understand him. He sits around and blames white people. That’s easy to do. He’s going to prison for good one of these days. I lost a job at that same paper mill because I couldn’t read. But I found another way to make a living. My daughter graduated from FAMU. She’s owns her own insurance business. My grandboy’s in college.”
The man who worked for me when I lived in Bronson still works every day at age 83. When area cattlemen need an extra hand to mend fences or build a structure, they call on him.
I asked him to identify his greatest accomplishment: “I never learned to read or write, but my three kids went to college, and they all have good jobs. They never went hungry. They never got in trouble with the law. I never made a lot of money, but I made enough to provide for my wife and kids. They can’t keep me out of work. I’ll make a job.”
I made up my mind years ago that if I ever were unemployed and could not find a mainstream job, I would buy an old pickup, and I, too, would create legitimate jobs for myself. I would not sell drugs and risk going to prison. For sure, I, like my uncle, would not sit on my butt and let it grow rusty.