Here's what people had to say to our photographer
by Ed Richardson
On the far end of Mechanicsville, away from its elegant restored homes, there is a group of five men standing on a street corner. Nearby is a sign that reads "NO LOITERINGViolators Subject to Search and Arrest." As I walk toward them, they seem anxious to see me. They greet me like salesmen on commission.
"What can I do for you today? What do you need? If I can help you with anything, just let me know. Hey, he's got a camera. What are you doing with that camera?"
I try to explain the article on Mechanicsville. One young man poses but changes his mind as I try to take his picture.
They avoid me. I stand on the apex of the corner. They refuse to make eye contact with me and begin to mumble to each other under their breath. They think I was sent by the police.
"Do you think I'm a cop?" I ask.
"The cops are always messin' with us. We can't even stand around. This is our neighborhood. Where else we gonna go?"
"Why would they bother you?"
"I don't know. They think we got drugs or something."
"Are there drugs around here?"
"Drugs? Absolutely not!"
But when a car with an out of county plate slowly drives by a few minutes later, hand gestures are quickly exchanged and the car pulls down a side street. Two of the men run up to the car and lean in the passenger window. Hands move in and out of pockets and in and out of the window. Twenty seconds after coming into sight, the car drives away.
An older man approaches me. He has yellow eyes with no discernible pupil. He is angry. "Why do you want to take a picture of this? Why do you always want to show the negative? You want to put my picture in the paper so the cops will put me in jail!"
Each time I try to respond, he interrupts and becomes more emphaticpoking me in the chest and beginning to yell. "I came back from the penitentiary. Look what you did to my neighborhood! There's nowhere to shop, nowhere to work. What am I supposed to do? What are these kids supposed to do?"
"What do you do?" I ask.
"I do what I have to do to keep the lights turned on and put food on the table."
I motion to the others. "What are they doing?"
"I don't know what these kids do; I sell pussy24/7. That's what I do. I'm 42 years old. I've tried to get jobs. They ask: 'You ever been convicted of a felony?'" He looks me in the eye. "Can you get me a job? Will you put in a good word for me?" He grows silent and walks across the street to a parked car.
A woman is shouting on the corner. She isn't addressing anyone in particular, but I realize her tirade is directed at me. She stops when I try to talk to her.
"What do you think the problem is?" she asks me.
"I'm not sure, but I know that the downtown..."
"This ain't downtown," she says.
"I know that the downtown starts to die when too many people move out to the suburbs."
"This ain't no suburbs." She turns away and ignores me.
The older man returns from the car. He seems to be cradling something in his left hand. It's pulled close against his thigh and I can't see what it is. He walks up to me with his hand this way. He is irritated that I'm still here.
"It was good talking to you." He says. "Why don't you move on now."
He shakes my hand and moves closer. He draws the left hand and its hidden contents around my back. I flinch and move quickly to the side. He looks at me for a moment. His eyes suddenly become tender and apologetic.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I wouldn't hurt you." He opens his hand. He's holding a lighter. He leans in and lowers his voice.
"You're hurting business."
The others laugh as I walk away.
"He thought he was gonna stick him. He thought he was gonna stick him."