A First Exchange on a Cold Day
James McGeein, a 50 year old Southern California native who has been in Reno for the past 20 years, is quick to share a smile and a few words of wisdom if you met him. The first time I met James I was working at a bar in downtown Reno. It was the middle of winter and if anyone knows Reno it’s a haven for barreling winds and severe weather patterns that make you feel as if you were in the Arctic.
Assuming that this raggedy looking man was getting out of the cold for a second I prepared to ask him to leave, as my company has a no loitering policy. He walked through the front door with a snow shovel and about three layers of clothing that looked as if they hadn’t ever been washed, and my first thought was, “damn, how am I going to kick this guy out when it’s freezing outside?”.
He walked up to my counter, but instead of asking for money or food, he asked me if we needed help removing the snow from our sidewalk out front. Not knowing what to do I texted my boss asking if this was something he was interested in or something that we could even do. As I waited for the response James indulged me with his cunning speech, “I travel around downtown from bars to restaurants asking employees and managers if there is any work I can do for a little spare change or some extra food lying around.”
I have heard the story a million times before. A lot of people will share a compelling story to get you to give them money; however, in James’s eyes he saw a trade opportunity. He told me he does oddball stuff for businesses around town, and in return they offered him some cash or some extra food from excess fries to extra pizza. I told him if he wanted to do the job I could work something out in his favor and without skipping a beat he shook my hand and walked outside to clear the sidewalk.
It has now been a few months since I met James and he still makes his runs from business to business, but at my bar we don’t mind if he sits around and entertains us with funny jokes and unbelievable stories that make you wonder what this guy has been through... “It’s been as exciting as a rollercoaster and as disastrous as a dirty needle,” he once told us. He’s quite blunt with his words, but in the way a boisterous relative would give you advice at a family barbecue. It seems he’s a realist, and doesn’t shy from saying what’s on his mind which from his past you might understand why.
The Life Story of James McGeein
Being a journalist I was very intrigued by him, and asked him for the chance to sit down and dive into how he survives day-to-day. Over a beer and some good food he told me stories, jokes, and how it is to be in his shoes. I, as the writer of this piece, am simply a vehicle for the incredible life story of James McGeein.
Growing up his family was split, his mother staying back in Southern California, while his dad moved up to the Lake Tahoe area. As a kid he spent weekends with his dad and on weekdays he made long eight hour bus rides back to his mom. He went to school, but said he never did well and was more focused on working to help his family out. He said he liked coming to Tahoe because it was a chance to feel free from obligation. He and his dad would go skiing and snowboarding every Friday and Saturday, then would head to the South Shore part of Tahoe to do some gambling and sit at a local hole in the wall restaurant.
Life changed very quickly for James though. He moved to Reno in his early twenties to pursue a decent job where he could provide for himself while taking care of his dad. Finding a job wasn’t hard he said, but finding a job with his background meant minimum wage and maximum hours to survive. He’s worked at almost every casino, he’s been a busboy at local eateries, and even a maintenance worker at some motels in town. He’s never made enough to live on his own so he couch surfed from house to house paying people $50-$100 to crash on their couch for a few days. Sometimes he said he’d come back to the house he was staying at and his things would be tossed outside with a note reading you owe me an extra $100 to stay another night. He simply picked his things up and moved on to the next opportunity.
Things weren’t going great for James, but he was making ends meet and was happy to have some sort of roof over his head. However, in 2011 things took a turn in the worst way. James was feeling sick and losing a lot of weight that he attributed to lack of food and the way he lived.
He checked himself into the hospital after he had enough of feeling sluggish all the time, and received news more devastating than any person in his situation should. The doctors said he maybe had one year to live, and the reason he was so skinny was the cancer spreading through his liver to his colon. Being in his 40s he said “I was terrified at first... when doctors tell you you’re going to die you kind of just believe it”.
James quit his job resulting in him being booted out of the house he was staying in and he began the search again. Between treatments at the hospital and falling asleep in alleys James was living a life that some might just give up on, but he knew he had to keep his head straight to battle this situation. He told me the last thing he wanted was for his parents to watch their son die before their eyes.
Not Giving Up after Being Given a Diagnosis of Death
“If you think this sh*ts gonna’ stop me... you don’t know what I have been through,” he said. James wasn’t going to give up because he was sick, the news in a way made him stronger and (made him) learn a lot about who was there for him and who was just looking to take advantage.
He got himself mixed up in some drug situations while dealing with disease and ended making a lot of “regrettable” decisions, but he never gave up. One year after doctors told him the cancer was terminal he walked out of the hospital with a foot long scar on his stomach and cancer free. To commemorate the awful situation he faced, he had ‘WTF’ tattooed under his scar... and yes he said it means What The F*ck.
A man that has been battle tested and couldn’t be broken, James is one hell of a guy that knows how to get work done. My hunch of a deeper story was right, James had ten times the life experience that anyone might have in Reno and it made him savvy.
Not having a stable income or even a bed to sleep in, he went right back to being what I like to call a drifting handyman. The man does everything from selling seasonal items that get donated to him to fixing the plumbing in your store for a much cheaper price than a licensed plumber. “Most people tell me no to fixing things in their stores because insurance reasons, but I try to tell them I’m not there to screw them over.” James said money has been hard to come by, and he’s not interested in getting a house or a car because it’s easier to move around town where he doesn’t have to pay rent.
Dangerous, Tedious and Helpful Jobs to Survive
For every soul stuck outside there’s a story; some struggling with substance abuse after losing everything, and others curling up at night freezing cold because they didn’t have money for rent. The homeless rehabilitation center in Las Vegas, The Las Vegas Rescue Mission, reports that 1 in 30 American children will experience homelessness and that 51 percent of those kids are under age five. It’s a grim situation that city officials and small volunteer groups around town have tried to address, but maybe not enough.
For many people in a financial dark time banks, loan agencies, and other services that end up charging high interest rates are an easy option. When you don’t have a credit card, any proof of a steady income, or other collateral where do you turn? “There’s money waiting around every corner you look... you just have to know what corners to look around”
When James said this it made me think about the kind of lengths he is willing to go to get a little extra cash in his pocket. He laughed when I asked, and wondered if I was asking about “explicit activities”. I turned very red and stuttered my words trying to track back my question, but before I could say anything he said he was joking and to my relief said he’s never stolen, robbed, or sold himself for money.
To his account the craziest thing he has had to do was standing on a slick snow covered roof in the middle of a storm to clear a gutter that was causing a leak in a building. James said the company gave him a long stick and snow shovel and said have fun. As he reached the part of the roof where the gutter was located he slipped on some ice that was covered by snow and began sliding towards a 30 foot drop off.
Just before sliding off, his foot hit a pipe protruding from the roof and stopped him from falling to an uncertain fate. Dangerous jobs like that were uncommon he said, jobs mostly included cleaning hotel lots, shoveling snow, or the occasional fixer-up kind of job where he would help contractors with various construction jobs.
The most money he’s made in a day was from an older lady who was being forced out of her apartment. Seeing the woman struggle to carry some of the heavier things he gladly walked over and asked if she would like some help getting the items in her van. At first he said she refused and told him to “fuck off”, but he insisted that he helped and said he didn’t want any money. The woman reluctantly saying yes, they both got to work. “It took about an hour of back breaking work to lift all of it into the van,” James said, and after they had finished the woman came up to James and handed him a folded up bill. It was the first of the new blue 100 dollar bills that he’s ever held. With tears in his eyes he embraced the woman for what she didn’t have to do.
Everyday that I have spent with or seen James it’s always a very similar greeting... “I’m doing good, I woke up so that’s a positive” he says, or “God’s great, and beer is good, and I’m still here”.
Using a popular Dierks Bentley song quote and joking all the time it was hard not to see the good man he was. He keeps high spirits while making his way around town which he says makes it easier to ask people for jobs.
He told me he became good friends with a girl that worked at a local pizza shop. He would sit in the restaurant on late night weekends when the woman would work alone and act as security to make sure she could get home safe. “There was the occasional problem, but I think she just liked the stories we’d share all night”.
Being Compared to the Master Splinter
James isn’t necessarily the security type standing at 5’7, 140 pounds with balding gray hair. His most notorious feature, his beard, was a long gray splattered one that split off his chain with two long strands almost reaching his belt line. Before the woman at the pizza joint quit her job she worked one last shift with James watching the door.
Later that night when she was closing up she asked James over to the kitchen and handed him an entire large pizza for the road. She looked at him and said thank you for being my Master Splinter. For those of you who don’t know, Splinter is the character who watches over the Ninja Turtles and teaches them with wise words and karate.
Not quite the same relationship between James and the pizza worker, but she said he looked like the character with the way his beard was and it stuck with James. Now, when I ask around town about James I oftentimes have to refer to him as ‘Splinter’ for people to recognize him. Truthfully, a fitting nickname to the father-like, caring character that he is.
There is a perception of homeless people not only in the Reno area, but worldwide that they are mentally unstable, not willing to work, or people that you should avoid. This couldn’t be further from the truth for millions of people left homeless.
I am not saying that all people in this situation are hard working and or are able to work like James is, but it is sad to see society categorize this group as such. Not all is lost however. Groups like Our Town Reno and the Salvation Army have taken it upon themselves to go out into the community to learn about the situations some of these people go through and help in any way they can. James agreed with me when I said the way to help is to recognize what they can do instead of focusing on what they can’t.
While finishing up the last of three interviews I had with James “Splinter” McGeein I asked him if there was one thing he would like people to know. He left me with a quote that, although may seem like the cliche of don’t judge a book by its cover, really hit hard;
“Just because I wear the same clothes everyday, my hair is tattered, and my hands are worn don’t look at me like I can’t do anything because I fight everyday to turn my flaws into my strengths”.
You can find James walking around the Truckee river in downtown Reno from sunup to sundown and if you happen to pass him give him a hello and I am sure you’ll get a story worth your time.