In tough economy, pain trickles to the bottom
on October 21, 2009
By the time the sun retreats toward the bay’s dark waters, McKenzie Franklin’s eyes are glazed, his limbs slackened and his mind eased.
Potent malt liquors and cheap wines flow steadily among Franklin and his comrades, who work and rest by the railroad tracks, a stone’s throw from the bay.
Franklin, 50, is joined daily by a dozen or so men, and a few women, who comprise the core members of a loosely-organized enterprise. They are scrappers, living on the margins of the long-marginalized city of Richmond, earning a meager sustenance by scavenging the wastes of an economy that long ago left them behind.
They rummage for cans, wires, old car parts — anything composed of metals. The scrappers scour for these materials up and down the railroad tracks, in parking lots, even in residential areas, where many of them say they have established friendly relationships with residents who happily hand over their scrap — or at least tolerate regular pilfering of their garbage cans. The scrappers tote their treasure to Sims Metal Management Company, a recycled metal processing company that sits along the water. Most tell personal tales of past employment lost, families scattered, hopes dashed.
“When it gets real slow around here, desperate, people steal metals, strip it from wherever,” McKenzie said. “Not me, but maybe others,” he quickly added.
Beneath the moving silhouettes of the massive tankers that float to dock on the Santa Fe Channel, the little stretch of railroad track serves as a gathering point for these men and women.
The tracks bend through along Cutting Boulevard, shaded by trees and the idle cargo cars awaiting a hitch.
Here they sit men like “Fast Freddy” and “Thunder Bob.” Their monikers linger like the ghosts of the men they once were, bearing little fidelity to the dimmed eyes and creaky bodies who answer to them.
Sometimes the work is better. Trucks pass over the tracks infrequently, hauling large caches of metals to be dropped at water’s edge.
The scrappers congregate a few hundred yards from Sims, not usually more than six or seven at a time. During the day, they look for a familiar face and a friendly wave from the drivers of rickety pickups and lumbering tractor trailers who offer them $10 or $20 to unload their compost metals. Later, the men and women trade in their bounty for money at the facility.
Sims claims to be the world’s largest metals and electronics recycler, with over 230 locations spanning four continents. None of its 7,500 employees are counted among the men and women by the tracks.
But work is scarce. The underemployed scrappers say they drink whatever is cheap and available in the scant selection carried by the liquor shack that sits across the street, seemingly kept open by this small but steady client base.
The liquor store, looks like a dilapidated building from the outside, and doubles as a check-cashing outpost for the homeless scrappers. When asked, the manager declined to specify the rate he charges for check cashing, but one of the scrappers, 55-year-old David Hill, showed a check stub for $6 that he had just redeemed. The store gave him $5 for the check, a redemption charge of 17 percent.
These homeless scrappers are symptomatic of the city’s long decline from an industrial powerhouse to a depressed, crime-addled city. Some talk about past employment at Peterbilt, a diesel truck manufacturer that left town in the late 1970s. Others mention the welding companies and machine shops of days past. Their stories are eerily similar, with past lives in good blue collar work that eventually dried up and went elsewhere, often overseas, during the long postwar decline – leaving them to scrap and live outside.
According to the city, Richmond’s unemployment rate was 15.1% in February 2009 — nearly 70% greater than the U.S. rate of 8.9% for the same period, and up from 10.2% in 2008. And after a year’s hiatus, the number of killings in 2009 have spiked. By September, more than 40 homicides have been recorded, compared to less than 30 slayings in 2008.
Sims is also seeing hard times. Its fiscal 2009 report, released Aug. 28, concluded that the year was “extremely difficult” for the company and the broader recycling industry. The report noted the freezing of credit markets, a global constriction of metal scrap flows and reduced demand for recycled materials.
Out here, that means less money for scrap and less money for food.
Carl Evans, 58, sat on the short concrete ledge tracing the railroad tracks. His shirt hung loose from dirty jeans. With one hand he tended a little black-domed barbecue, the smoke wafting up from a few strips of pork.
Evans has been homeless and making money off of scrap metal collecting for nearly a decade, he said. The 1969 Berkeley High School grad came to Richmond in the 1970s to work in the steel industry.
“The price of the metals, it goes high and it goes low,” he said. “When it goes down, nobody wants to give us nothing to help them unload it.”
Evans scowls when chatting about the global forces that weigh on his already meager lifestyle. But he can be jolly. During those few hours between the easing of the work day and the darkness of night, the liquor and laughs flow liberally. The vibe among the scrappers hanging around on the ground near a “No Trespassing” sign can be positively jovial.
“Man, Berkeley was the place to be back then,” Evans said, laughing heartily after several tall cans of beer. “We all got along. We thought it was the best place in the world.”
Evans’ beard is gray, and his body is stout. He was a union steelworker until about 10 years ago.
“There was just no more work,” he said.
Then the pain took hold.
“I’m an alcoholic, but I work hard and I treat people good,” he said.
So now Evans, like the others — mostly black men — sits near the tracks.
”Richmond used to be a nice place. But the jobs left and people just got poorer,” he said.
Evans said he doesn’t like to dwell on the past. Then he chuckled, realizing the uncomfortable truth.
“The past is all I’ve got,” he said.
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