JERSEY CITY, N.J.—When I dropped Larry off, a 6-inch blade slipped out of his pocket on to my car’s passenger seat. Here I was, after hours of conversation, unsure of this man’s reaction to nearly losing his weapon, which he uses “for protection.” I grabbed it and handed it over, heeding his warning about homelessness: “Never say never.”
Larry’s life is irrepressibly twisted: endlessly scrounging for grub, mooching for copper Lincolns and guarding his skin –– even his reputation.
Larry James Adams, a 59-year-old Jersey City panhandler at about 5’8”, is an exception to his misfortune, though, and finds contentment in an often-mocked lifestyle through contemplation, diehard ambitions and social critique.
“The less you have, the less you have to worry about,” the slender father of four said, “I had so much pressure with the jobs, wife, kids, cars and house. I’m happy. There’s less pressure.”
Larry first married in 1976 but divorced 3 years later. He and his second wife were married for 12 years until their divorce in 1992. He left their home in Norfolk, Virginia, to come back to New Jersey, where, for thirteen years, he’s been homeless, usually and cheerfully hoping commuters will spot him some cash at his main intersection of Route 440 and Communipaw Avenue, with a real-estate sign on the back of which Larry inscribed in thick, dark marker, “HI, I’M LARRY. HOMELESS, HUNGRY, DRUG and ALCOHOL FREE.”
Growing up with a single mother in the Dayton Street Projects of Newark, New Jersey, Larry claims to have learned many lessons through the years: “Life is life. You live until you die. It doesn’t owe me anything.” He added that he’s proud of himself and his God-given intelligence.
After high school, Larry started his own brick-laying business with a friend while working for General Motors. With both jobs, he was able to keep his own apartment and car. His business failed because he had no time, he said, because he was “chasing girls all my life. As long as I have breathe in my body, I’ll continue to chase them.”
During his youth, he claims to have traveled as a drummer with several bands, including The Escorts. His preferred music is the “old school R&B of the 70’s and 80’s, like Maze; Earth, Wind and Fire.” He made a point in saying, “I don’t appreciate rap because it doesn’t have the artistry I’m accustomed to.”
Without an iPod, or even a cassette player, Larry can’t feel the rhythms of his beloved music; instead, he gropes with the thunderous movement of hundreds of cars daily at his intersection about two miles from New Jersey City University, where eighteen-wheelers wouldn’t stop for a baby in a carriage.
“I love Larry. He used to check my car and give me advice every morning on my way to work about ten years ago,” said Lucy Rovetto, a long-time Jersey City resident, whose appreciation, according to Larry, he sees so seldom.
“People think you’re worthless, a piece of [expletive]. People think I’m gonna rob them, car jack them,” Larry said of the drivers who swish by his daily intersection.
“I don’t ask people for money. I say hello, good morning, goodbye. I don’t think I [should] have to ask.” Larry, whose salt-and-pepper beard and glossy-red eyes speak of a grizzled life, believes that invading a driver’s space is wrong. And if by chance he loses a generous patron due to a suddenly green light, he doesn’t pine, since “You can’t miss something you never had.”
The once traveling drummer and entrepreneur has a consistent enough group of givers to support his daily expenses. Larry spends at least $30 every day and must consume food immediately, since he has no way of preserving groceries.
Using a rusted mountain bike, Larry, in scarred blue jeans, a ripped jacket and a small book bag, rides to and from his abandoned six-unit apartment building, where he lives, to his intersection four-to-eight times everyday, focusing his time on the highest traffic hours –– 6:00 to 8:00 am, 11:00 am to 1:00 pm, and anytime between 3:00 to 7:00 pm –– where droves of drivers have gotten to know him.
“He’s been around for years and never bothers anybody. He always says hello, happy holidays,” Officer Tim Destasio of the Jersey City Police Department said.
The nearby Exxon’s gas attendant feels differently: “He’s crazy. Gets in trouble with the police every day and stays in the bathroom for two-to-three hours a day.”
“For at least ten years, I’ve been harassed by police every single day of my life. Me, I’m an easy target,” said Larry, who also feels the police should focus more on locking up “murderers and rapists.”
He has rare conflicts with other street-dwellers and “fear[s] nothing but God,” since “God is God. When you get to a certain age, you stop fearing, even [evil] spirits,” he said.
When he can, Larry loves “playing with people’s minds” who think he’s stupid, since he learned much about psychology in cosmetology school, he said. One time, after a driver asked him where he stashes his cash, he whispered to him, “Hey, come close. See that bush over there. Under it, there’s a hole.” A few hours after this, he saw that driver looking under that bush.
Humor, it seems, is a great way for Larry to cope with his past and relax in his present.
Larry frankly admitted the cause of his homelessness and biggest regret of his life is “that I started using drugs, not because it put me on the street, but because it separated me from my family.” His father introduced him to the lifestyle sometime after high school: “He thought it was a good idea for even his son to get high. My dad and I were close. He was easy to talk to. He never chastised me because of [drugs].”
Larry now strives to complete nobler, million-dollar aspirations, unlike certain others: the businessmen who “always want more” and those “politicians who are big-pocket [expletive].”
“I have three inventions I’ve been working on for five years, I want to write a book and own my own corporation,” he said, taking his last bite of Burger King’s Double Cheeseburger in our quiet booth. “I’m not greedy. I can’t understand how big-pocket businessmen with 80 billion dollars want more,” he reasoned, adding that, “After I get where I get, I’ll give it all away. I want it for society.”
One day, Larry wants to open a youth center with the money his corporation makes on his three inventions (which he didn’t share because they’re not patented yet). He said that he wants underprivileged kids to stop hustling for things as a useless Lexus.
“I want to teach kids how to better manage their life. It [his vision] will be worldwide, not nationwide. I’m reaching for the sky,” he said, while shifting his hands passionately about. “To me, things I say make sense. Somebody has to listen to what I say. If I had the power, I could change everything around.”
I sure did listen to Larry, to every word. The fervor and sincerity with which he spoke echoed in my ears, however outlandish his convictions may have seemed. Perhaps I should have kept his knife. If his aspirations soar, it might be worth something one day:
“The day is gonna come! when people will remember my name, my contribution to society, not for my own self-glory. I’ve got a good plan and gotta implement it. I believe with all my heart and soul, with God’s help, it’ll happen!”
According to the 2000 census, 18.6% of Jersey City’s population (240,055 people) lives below the poverty line. The homeless are in the unrecognized category below that, one in which people don’t have the minimum necessary income to achieve an adequate standard of living.