David Cook: Finding, and losing, the job of a lifetime

David Cook: Finding, and losing, the job of a lifetime

September 2nd, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

It was one of the most unforgettable moments I've witnessed in a long time.

It would be followed, a day later, by one of the worst.

Wednesday afternoon, head to toe in white painter's shirt and pants, Tommy - who says he was 7 years old when he shot his first person - was on his knees in an unfinished apartment, learning how to paint a baseboard. Over his life, his hands have held so much: guns, blood money, prison bars.

Last week, they were holding a paintbrush.

Over his shoulder stood Frank Johnson, probably twice his age, an elder black male mentor to this younger man trying to get off the Alton Park streets.

Slow down, Johnson told him. You've got to let it dry before painting over it again.

Tommy nodded, as if he was finally understanding that lesson -- slow down -- in much deeper ways.

One week ago, I wrote about black males -- I'm so weary of using the term "gang member" -- who said they would walk away from street life for one thing: a legitimate job. No more dope, hustling, late nights. They just wanted an honest job.

Within days, they got one.

"This is one of the most experimental situations Chattanooga has witnessed in a long time," Kirk Robinson said.

Robinson, 69, owns R&R Refurbishing and Painting. Sitting on a paint bucket in the dusty hallways of an unfinished Alton Park apartment complex, he spoke to his small crew, which grew by three with the hiring of Tommy and two others.

"Whether you know it or not, you're a part of history," he said.

Robinson, a Howard High graduate, spoke with a prophet's voice, deep like a river, which filled the hallway.

"I want you to know how much I love you and appreciate you," he told his men. "Let's make it work, gentlemen."

After they went back to work, quiet tears began to fall from his eyes at the meaning of this moment: a local, all-black painting crew working in their community, helping mentor and rehabilitate young -- and shattered -- black males.

"It's a new day," he said.

Upstairs, Josh, 25, was sanding walls. He had been all day and the day before. I had written about him last Sunday: tattooed next to each eye, a "G" and "D": Gangster Disciples. He's also a father.

"I've got to make it smooth," he said, running the long-handled sander over the rough wall. He could have been talking about his life.

Downstairs, Deoaunte was putting down blue painter's tape. Weeks away from his 22nd birthday, he's been arrested eight times in the last two years. He, too, is a dad.

"I'm making sure all the rooms have tape in them," he said.

The day before, he sanded 12 rooms.

"It keeps me off the block, off the street corner," he said. "I'm so busy during the day, by the time I get off ... I go home and go to sleep."

Across the hall, Tommy, 32, who says he's spent 13 years of his life in prison, was painting baseboards. I asked how long his criminal record was.

"'Bout as long as you," he said.

They have this man named Skip Eberhardt to thank. Eberhardt, whose life used to be as violent as theirs, is now walking the streets -- for free, on nobody's payroll - doing all he can to connect these young men with legitimate labor, like he did with Robinson's painting crew.

Eberhardt is becoming one of the most important figures in our city's struggle against street violence. If the jobs were available, he said he'd have a line a half-mile-long of kids wanting to work.

"They're calling me," he said.

Thursday afternoon, it all crashed down.

"The guy claimed he didn't have the money to pay us," Robinson said. "[He said] he's got to cut his losses."

Robinson had to let most of his crew go, saying that out-of-town business owners and contractors made decisions that trickled down to Robinson ... and Josh, Deoaunte and Tommy.

Last Wednesday, I saw three men trying to scrub the crime off their hands through work, trying to rewrite their lives back into something honest and decent. Something to be proud of.

And it lasted for three days.

I called Deoaunte. Asked him what he was feeling.

"Kind of played," he said.

What are you going to do?

"I'll just keep looking," he said. "Skip say he's trying to find something for me."

When we talk about ending street violence in this city, how far are the rest of us willing to go?