Darrell & Buddy
Darrell Anderson steps out from behind an iron gate. Two dogs follow. One, a Maltese named Sugar, jumps up at me playfully. The other, Buddy, a muscular tan dog that Darrell refers to as a “cattle dog,” sniffs around the cement parking area strewn with the stuff of Darrell’s past.
The 55-year-old Fox Canyon resident has been cleaning out his shed, and yard-sale preparations are in full swing. A battered “For Rent” sign lies on the ground among old wooden toolboxes, dirty buckets, and dusty work boots. A broom leans against a table piled with empty red gas cans, plastic funnels, and coils of rope. Buddy wanders through the piles, stepping in a toolbox here, over a pair of boots there.
“I tried to get him neutered yesterday, and he raised so much hell they gave him back to me,” Darrell says of Buddy. “He’s never had a muzzle on, he’s never been put in a cage, and he’s never been separated from me, so he just had a fit.”
Sugar jumps up at me again, and Darrell swats at her with the white washcloth in his hand.
“And you know he bites, too,” Darrell says. “He’s got a mouth full of teeth.”
I ask if maybe the dog shouldn’t go back behind the gate. Darrell laughs and says, “No, he’s not going to bite you. He’s going to chase lizards.”
The freestanding shed that used to hold Darrell’s effects sits at the southern edge of a cement parking area between the front house and the two-unit apartment building behind it. Darrell owns both buildings. He and his wife Verlean occupy the ground-floor apartment and rent out the rest. But only until the end of the month. After that, the mortgage company will take over, and he and Verlean will move to Lansing, Michigan, where they both have family nearby.
“I can’t get work,” he says, using the washcloth to wipe down a padded fold-up chair that sits in the shade against the back building. “And the mortgage is upside-down.”
He carries the chair into the sun and sets it down a few feet in front of another just like it. We sit. Darrell tells me he has to leave for a doctor’s appointment in an hour or so. The sun is hot, and beads of sweat sparkle on his nose and forehead. Sugar jumps at me again. He swats at her with the cloth, then wipes his face with it.
“I bought this place for $160,000 in 2000,” he says. “When the houses went up sky-high, I was able to get some equity on it. I owe $370,000 on it now, and they appraised it at $240,000. The mortgage company accepted it as payment in full, so when I leave, I won’t owe them anything. I might not be able to buy anything for two years, but it’ll take me two years to get back on my feet anyway.”
Darrell stands just over six feet tall. He wears a faded black T-shirt, and his sweatpants hang loose. The ensemble emphasizes the forward slouch of his shoulders, but the neatly groomed salt-and-pepper mustache suggests that maybe he cleans up well, too.
“A lot of jobs I’ve had, I didn’t even bother trying to compete,” he says. “At Ameron Pipe, for instance, if there was going to be an opening in the foreman position, the white boys would assume that they’re going to get the job. You’ve got a couple of black guys, and a whole bunch of Mexican guys who’ve been there 25 years. I’ve seen 18- and 20-year-old white boys come in, and after they’ve been there a month, they can’t figure out how come they’re not the boss yet. When I had a job at Superior Ready Mix, the white boys used to do the same thing. They used to argue about who’s going to get the next position. And they would rank themselves according to who they think it’s going to be.”
He mops his forehead with the cloth again, then reaches down to pull Sugar up onto his lap.
“I didn’t even enter the discussion. If I was white, they would’ve asked me.”
Darrell believes things are different today. He doesn’t think his inability to find work has anything to do with being black.
“When I was younger, I would’ve said [it does]. I’ve gone looking for jobs where the man says, ‘You’re qualified but I don’t want no niggers working in my shop.’ I’ve had them tell me that to my face. I asked one man at Hawthorne [CAT], over here off the freeway,” he points in a northerly direction, “where they have earth-moving equipment. As a machinery technician, I knew all the phases of mechanics and hydraulics and stuff like that, so it would’ve been just a matter of adapting to the environment. And I asked this guy, I said, ‘What am I doing wrong? I’m going to these places, and I’m just not getting hired.’ That was probably in 1983, when I had just gotten out of the Coast Guard. And the guy said, ‘There’s nothing wrong. I just don’t hire niggers.’”
Buddy gets up from under the shed and wanders around in the heat. He climbs over a toolbox and sniffs at the welding jacket on the ground. Darrell watches him for a minute. Then he goes on.
“And when I went to another place in Santee, the guy said he’d hire a Mexican, but he’d never hire a nigger. You just get a lump in your throat, and you turn around and leave. You can’t sue them. It’s just you and a guy talking. I had asked to know the truth.”
Today, though, “as the work field becomes more diverse,” he says, this kind of discrimination “is probably not as true.”
And while he agrees that “the old grampy guys” may have been trained to keep their tongues in check, “the younger guys are probably looking at people of all nationalities and accepting more diversity. When I was going around looking for work, you had me and a white guy and some Mexicans. Now you’ve got 50 different other kinds of people. So I think it’s harder for the white people to discriminate, and then when a lot of young people are brought up in that environment, they don’t carry the hatred over.”
With a sweep of his arm, Darrell gestures at the mess of items at our feet.
“See, this is like my history right here.” He points to a pile at his left. “I used to be in welding. That’s my welding jacket. I gave my son my welding hood and a few other things. There’s my welding bucket, to put my stuff in.”
He points out other piles of “hardware stuff” and “plumbing stuff” from jobs he’s done around the house.
“And this here is for knocking dents out of cars.” He points to what looks like a fishing tackle box full of rusty hand tools. “I just kind of accumulated that. I didn’t really knock any dents out.”
Darrell notices that he hasn’t seen Buddy for a while. He shouts the dog’s name twice, then excuses himself to go down the driveway and into the street. He calls out. I hear dogs bark next door. A minute later, Buddy and Darrell return. Buddy heads for the shed to lie down in the shade.
“I do a lot of gardening stuff.” Darrell indicates the hill behind the apartment building. “There’s a lot of weeds now, but I have greens growing back there. And grapes. I’m going to take my grapes with me. I’m going to dig them up and put the roots in a canvas bag and tie it off.”
When he arrives in Michigan, he’ll replant them.
“My sister’s going to get us a house out there. She’s expecting a big lump sum because she’s suing her dentist.”
He pushes Sugar off his lap and tells me the story of how his sister’s minor tooth extraction turned into spinal meningitis, which led to a coma, infection in her brain, and other complications. Every now and again, he touches his jaw. He looks somewhere over my shoulder and, in the telling, employs an affectless demeanor. His voice rises slightly at the end of his sentences, as if in question.
Overhead, City Heights songbirds whistle and chirp. Down the street, a dog barks. Under the shed, Buddy’s head perks up.
Darrell was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and came to San Diego with his family in 1964. He attended Johnson Elementary in Emerald Hills, Gompers Middle School in Chollas View, and graduated from Hoover High in City Heights. He was in the seventh grade when he got his first job, picking rocks out of the ground at the newly built Euclid Convalescent Center (now Brighton Place) for $1 an hour. He worked there in various capacities (gardening, dishwashing, maintenance) after school for the next five years, within which time his pay was raised to $2.20 per hour. Right before his 1974 high-school graduation, when his first daughter was born, he asked the owner for a raise.
“He said he couldn’t give me a raise, but if I could work to the end of the week, he wouldn’t stand in the way of my unemployment. I told my mother, ‘I went and asked for a raise and he fired me.’”
He flashes an ambiguous smile.
In 1975, Darrell joined the Coast Guard, which took him to Oregon, Italy, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. After eight years, he left the Coast Guard and brought his family back to San Diego. By then, he had three children.
“I knew I was going to be a single parent because my wife was no good. So, I had to raise my kids. She turned into a drug addict. She used to tell me stuff like, ‘You better take your daughter with you because I’m not going to take care of her.’ She’d give me all kinds of shit in the mornings. It made it hard to go to work not knowing what was going to happen with the kids while I was gone.”
Darrell maintains the affectlessness while he veers off and tells me a story about later years, when he and his wife were both on crack and crystal meth.
“I was still going to work every day and paying my bills, but she was steadily getting worse. She would go out and stay a week or two at a time. We used to go up the hill to dry the clothes, and she’d drive around four or five days with the clothes in the car still wet. I’d have to call my boss and say I couldn’t go to work, not only because I had no clothes, but also because I had nobody to take care of the kids.”
After the Coast Guard, Darrell worked for a year as an outside machinist in the San Diego shipyards. In 1984, he found a job — first in maintenance, then as an ironworker — at Ameron Pipe, where he stayed until the plant closed in 1990.
Even though he claims to have had a handle on his drug use, something his mother said made him feel bad about it.
“Just about everybody in the family was getting high on something or another, and my mother said that we had all turned out to be a bunch of junkies, and if she’d have known that, she wouldn’t have sacrificed all that she did to try to raise us.”
Two young black men in baggy jeans and baseball caps emerge from the same iron gate Darrell had come from. Darrell nods at them. Buddy and Sugar both run over and begin to follow the young men down the driveway. Darrell calls the dogs back.
“Those are my renters,” he says.
In 1988, Darrell went into rehab for a month. He hasn’t done crack or crystal meth since. By that time, he and his wife had been separated for a few years, but she lived down the street. When he came home from rehab, she went in.
“We did an exchange because we had insurance. But it didn’t work on her. It got ugly because she was getting welfare and having the checks go over to her auntie’s house. I was wondering how come, on the first of every month, she would disappear for a week, and then she’d come back stinking and crazy-looking and didn’t even have a nickel in her pocket.”
When Darrell discovered that his then-wife (they were still legally married) was using the welfare checks to buy drugs, he made the phone call that alerted authorities to her fraudulence. He ended up in court in front of a judge who ordered him to pay back the welfare money she’d spent.
“I told him I wasn’t giving nobody shit,” he says, leaning forward slightly and watching the two young men come back up the driveway, laughing, cigarettes dangling from their lips. “He said, ‘I just can’t believe you got $800 coming into your house, and you don’t know anything about it.’ I told him, ‘Well, you’ve never been married to a crackhead.’”
The ex-wife ended up in jail.
After Ameron, Darrell went to Edutech to obtain automotive-repair certification. While in school, he worked as a temporary employee for an agency called Temp Remedy, where he was hired out as a forklift driver, an envelope-stuffer, and a maintenance worker at SeaWorld. After graduation, he specialized in brakes and suspension at Midas for seven or eight years.
While at Midas, Darrell met Verlean, his current wife.
“I met her through her girlfriend, who I met at a check-cashing place,” he says of Verlean. “I got paid on Saturday, right? And I was standing in line to cash my check, and the kids were in the car. So I meet this lady standing in line. She wanted to cut in front of me. So I let her. And she gave me her phone number and stuff, but I couldn’t call her until after Monday at 8:00 because her old man was going into rehab.”
He chuckles. I’m waiting for him to get to the part about his wife, but he’s lost in a detailed reverie about the check-cash girl.
“She was one of them girls where all you have to do is buy her a pack of cigarettes and a 40-ounce,” he says. “We started running around every day because her old man was going to be in rehab for 30 days.”
Darrell is starting to sound like magnet for trouble. I tell him so.
“Well, I think I just give it an opportunity.” He smiles.
When he begins going into more detail about the check-cash girl and how she treated her old man, I remind him he’s supposed to be telling me about how he met Verlean.
“[The check-cash girl] used to brag to her friend about me,” he says. “So her friend came over here, wanting to find out for herself.”
“She never left.”
Again, the twinkling grin.
“We’ve been together now for almost 20 years. That’s why they say you shouldn’t brag to your friends.”
After Midas, Darrell repaired rock crushers for Superior Ready Mix, a manufacturer of concrete, aggregate, and asphalt products. In 2000, he bought the home he is now packing up and getting ready to leave behind. He made good money at work in those years, along with an extra $2000 a month in rental income. But in 2003, he got injured at work and spent the next five years in pain, unable to walk much, and fighting for the money for a hip replacement. During that time, he lived on a $900 check every two weeks for workman’s compensation, plus the rental income. Eventually, he won $90,000. Half of that went to his surgery. The rest was spent before they got it.
“By then, we were knee-deep in debt,” Darrell says.
After he healed from the surgery, he attended a two-year program to obtain a certificate in wastewater- and freshwater-treatment technology. He graduated with his certificates in January 2010 but was unable to find work. So he participated in the 2010 census from April to August, making $18 per hour, full-time. In early 2011, he received two more certificates (Building Energy Analyst and Building Energy Envelope) from Cuyamaca College, to inspect homes for energy efficiency. Still, after looking for work on the computer, at job fairs, and through word of mouth, nothing has come up yet.
So, now he and Verlean are off to Michigan, where he has already begun looking for work on the internet.
“I want to be a building inspector,” he says, “but I’ll take a job as a water-plant operator or anything else that uses the skills that I have.”
Verlean pulls to the top of the driveway in a green Ford Explorer. The dogs run at her. She comes around the back of the truck carrying Sugar in her arms. Verlean wears her hair in short braids that frame her face and sports black velour sweatpants and sneakers.
“We’re just talking,” Darrell tells her.
She reminds him that he needs to get ready for his doctor’s appointment, then heads inside.
As we say goodbye, Darrell says, “We weren’t the robbing-and-shooting kind of junkies.”
“Okay,” I say.
“We were intellectuals,” he adds. And grins.