By Bernadette Janes
Before Raymond Jacobs became a vendor for the Homeless Grapevine, his varied careers were packed into one lifetime like pieces of an old southern parlor game. It all started in 1947 in New Orleans, Louisiana, with an Ethiopian mother and a white German-Jewish father. Growing up in the South Half-black and half white was not easy. Within the multiple hues of that population, Raymond was categorized as Creole.
After finishing high school, Raymond and six buddies, all of them seventeen years of age celebrated their freedom b going on a fateful lark. Swilling down quarts of cheap wine, they ran, screaming, through startled neighborhoods, and suddenly found themselves in front of a Marine Corps recruiting office. Deeply inebriated, they decided it might be fun to drop in and visit a while. With the Vietnam War going on at the time, the group of robust seventeen-year-olds looked like fresh meat to the Recruiting Officer on duty.
He welcomed them in and immediately began pouring Jack Daniels whisky into them, regaling them with promises of fantastic benefits if they would enlist. By the time the started for home, they understood nothing of the import of papers the recruiting officer thrust into their hands for their parents to sign. All the parents signed the papers readily and sent them in. Days later, stone sober and realizing the depth of the hole they had fallen into, the boys tried to get the papers back, with no success.
They were now United Sates Marines! As soon as Raymond reached age, he was sent to Camp Pendleton for Boot Camp. In Vietnam through 1965 and early 1966, he participated in heavy combat. Fighting on Ho Chi Min Trail, he caught a barrage of sniper fire. It bored a deep hole in his right shoulder, which remains open and will forever remind him of Vietnam.
Back in the U.S., Raymond tried hard to find a job, but jobs were scarce everywhere. However, his younger brother was making money-pulling robberies and invited Raymond to join him. Raymond became a lookout for his brother’s gang. Eventually, he found a partner and became a robber himself. His victims didn’t know the gun he displayed was empty, because he never wanted to hurt anyone. All he wanted was money to live on. For a few years, things went well, and he collected thousands of dollars, but in 1968 he was caught, convicted and spend the next 26 years in prison. Fate again dealt him a bit of irony in the fact that his booking officer turned to be his own father.
Released in 1994, Raymond’s life took a radical turn. Again faced with the need for money, he started panhandling on the streets. Then, to his surprise, a new aptitude developed with him. Always an alert and observant person, he began to catch purse-snatchers in the act. Returning purses to their frightened owners, he felt warmth emanating for grateful people, warmth he had rarely experienced in his earlier life. In time, he also became adept at finding lost wallets, cashiers checks, money orders, and whatever other valuables people unknowingly dropped on the streets. Raymond became known in the community for his skill and concern for others. He thus earned tremendous gratitude and appreciation from the many people whose lost or stolen items would never have been returned to them, but for his quick intelligent actions.
Never married, Raymond has lived the past twelve years with a companion whose stolen purse he recovered and returned to her. He rues the circumstances, which led him into the robberies, but realizes it was only for survival, not because of a desire to frighten anyone. He’s glad to be where he is at this time, known and welcomed in the community, and keeping a steady schedule as a vendor of the Grapevine. Like his father, he embraces the Jewish religion, keeps the Sabbath on Saturday, and stays in tough with his Rabbi. He now looks forward to the future a feeling that is new to him, for he knows nothing will ever be a heart stopping as all he experienced in the past. Ready to take on whatever comes, he knows he’s made it through the bad, the good, and the in between, and after all the detours he took, and all the mishaps he stumbled into, he has finally arrived, and his whole self intact, at his true and natural way of life.
Originally published in the Homeless Grapevine Issue #85 in July-August 2008 Cleveland Ohio.