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Homeless vendor Randy hopes to dispel stereotypes about homelessness, race

Feb 06 2017
Posted by: Staff
Homeless vendor Randy hopes to dispel stereotypes about homelessness, race

By: Allie Gross

Vendor Randy “Kathmandu” Jack has sold three different street newspapers within the last year. What works for him?

“I consider myself a newspaper stand,” Randy said. “I don’t wave, I don’t smile, I just stand here. People don’t want to be bothered, so if they want a paper, they’ll come to me.”

Randy was a chef for 35 years before he lost his job at TGI Friday’s following the 2010 Nashville flood. He began selling The Contributor to earn an income, and has been selling street papers since. In 2012, he moved to Seattle where he sold their street paper, Real Change. In summer 2016, he returned to Tennessee to meet his new grandchildren and sold The Bridge, the street paper in his hometown of Memphis. He’s been back in Nashville selling The Contributor at his spot in front of the Trader Joe’s at Green Hills for about three months.

“My thing is, you treat it like a job,” he says. “You go to your spot every day at the same time, and you be consistent. It takes a while to build up clientele. People start noticing you there, sometimes they think you’re just out here trying to get a few dollars to get a beer or something, or some drugs. But no, this is how I pay my bills. ... I survive off this paper.”

Right now, Randy lives in a small tent community with a queen-size air mattress, two heaters and a stove for him to cook on. Metro and outreach programs come by occasionally to check on them and drop off wood or food. 

“A home is what you make of it. I’m not homeless, I’m houseless,” Randy explains. “I know where my tent is. I know where I’m going every day I know I can cook, I know I can sleep, stay warm and dry. I’ve got a change of clothes.”

Randy grew up in Memphis as the youngest of 21 children. He says his parents taught him strong family values and work ethics. 

“I had yards to cut growing up, all my brothers, we were shoe shine boys at my father’s barber shop. My mother taught me how to cook.”

Randy misses being a chef. His eyes light up when he talks about making shepherd’s pie, fettuccini alfredo, homemade chicken and dumplings. He had to stop because of arthritis in his right hand prohibiting him from making certain cuts.

“I can still cook with the best of them. I can still grill, sauté, do everything. It’s just certain cuts I can’t do, and that slows you down. Restaurants, you need speed,” he said. Still, Randy appreciates the flexibility that selling The Contributor provides him now.

“I’m my own boss. If I don’t want to go out, I can look in the mirror and say I’m not going to work today. And my boss won’t say anything.”

He says he loves to sell on rainy days.

“Everybody can’t sell papers on rainy days,” Randy says. “I take the time out to bag my papers up individually. Just to let people know my papers are dry, I’ll take a paper and throw it up in the air and let it land in the water, shake it off and be like, it’s dry. Because it’s a product, and I keep my product in good condition.”

Randy said he has found that people hold many misperceptions about people experiencing homelessness. While he was selling in Seattle, a man pulled up next to Randy and yelled at him to get a job.

“I said, 'Let’s swap places,'” Randy recalls. “'Let me put on your suit and you stand out in the cold. Could you do that?' He looked at me, he drove back the next day and gave me a $20 bill. And every time he saw me once a week after that he’d buy a paper for $20.”

He’s passionate about educating people to dispel these misperceptions. He emphasizes the need to judge people based on their character, not the color of their skin or how they look. Randy often submits articles and poems about social injustice and racism to be published in street papers he’s sold.  

“The thing that people don’t realize is, the key word in homeless people is people. People take so much pride in possessions, and materialistic thing. My thing is money don’t make morals, and your valuables don’t make values,” he says. “Every person on the street has a story. We’re all people. Your Lexus doesn’t make you no better than my bicycle. People need to start treating people the way they want to be treated.”

It's important to him to highlight problems in society, but he says neither Seattle, Memphis or Nashville has been ready for what he writes.

“If people don’t like what I say, then I must’ve said something right,” he says. “Because I’m not here to sugarcoat nothing. ... Whether it’s something about race, about poverty, about social injustice, I’m gonna tell you exactly what it is.”  

He recently got a badge allowing him to sell all day outside Trader Joe’s, where he’s developed a relationship with neighboring businesses. Not only is he friendly with the managers and employees at Trader Joe’s, who sometimes bring out food for him, but a woman at the nearby Wine Shoppe has given him work before and lets him charge his phone in the store. The manager took him to dinner for his 50th birthday.

Many people know Randy by his nickname, “Kathmandu.” Its origins are from a conversation with a customer in Seattle, who one day asked him if he was going to be OK. 

“I’m like, I’m Kathmandu. No matter what life throws at me, I’m going to land on my feet like a cat. ... I can do anything I set my mind to. The struggle is real but failure’s not an option. And that name just stuck,” he says. “So now when people ask me what’s my name, I say I’m Kathmandu. And I explain to them what it means, it’s a motivational thing for me. When they sing sad songs and throw dirt on me, then I won’t have a chance to win. As long as I can live and walk, even if I’m in a chair, I got a chance to win. I refuse to fail. I’ll struggle but I’m not going to fail.”

Photo credit: Morgan Miller

 


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