Lloyd T. Vaughn is one of the last people to stop by the scrapyard as twilight wraps around the horizon on a Sunday evening. There are only a few yards open on Sunday and this one shuts down early. The gates are closing behind him as he exits his dented 1996 Dodge Ram 1600 pickup truck, full of crates: a crate for circuit boards, one for copper and aluminum. He’d been filling the crates for the last two weeks and he’d just sold it all, along with the steel that had filled the bed, for about $60. Vaughn has been doing this for years. He understands the rules of the practice and he abides by them. Vaughn doesn’t have to cross property lines to get his scrap. There is enough scattered across side streets all over this city. TVs, old stereos, VCRs, cable, and flat metal all end up in alleys, where people like Vaughn find them and bring them here to the recycling center. “I got it from dumpsters throughout the projects. Trash days I ride through the alleys. People will call me and let me know they’re disposing something,” Vaughn says.
Vaughn was up early this morning grabbing what he could before others woke up. He has a large family and often brings his 6-year-old son out on hauling jobs. “I’ve been bringing him out since he was two,” Vaughn says. “Instilling in him a work ethic.”
If anyone can instill a work ethic, it’s Vaughn. He works as a housing custodian at Johns Hopkins University on weekdays from 11:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. If it’s sporting season he works at parking lots for the Orioles or Ravens. He does home repair and demolition. By his own estimate, he’s on the clock 70 to 80 hours a week, when you include his many jobs.
But there was a time when Vaughn spent those same hours dedicated to a different hustle, using and selling drugs. His parents were both deeply into church culture—his father was a pastor—and his mother would send him to North Carolina in the summers, to keep him out of trouble. During high school, he enrolled in the National Guard and completed boot camp. But he quit going to school and he already had a kid on the way. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself and saw the fast money,” he says of the period in the early ’90s when crack was flooding the city. For a while, everything seemed great and he loved the life. When he found himself with no money, his best friend would be there to bail him out, but not without telling him to “get your shit together.”
Vaughn’s descent into darkness did not go unnoticed by his family. One night he fell asleep in the car when he was riding with his father, who laid hands on him and prayed for his safety.
“Whatever you’re doing by the time you’re 40 is what you will be doing for the rest of your life,” his father told him later, as he wasted his early 30s away.
Around the same time, his best friend went to jail. He was snatched up by the feds for moving drugs all over the city. It was time for Vaughn to decide whether he was going to live out his days hustling or if he was going to go legit and forget about that life forever.
“I had come to acknowledgment that I had to leave the street alone totally,” he says. “I separated myself from people for a minute—then I focused on scrapping and bettered myself through work. I returned to my roots of my upbringing and not what the streets had taught me.”
Now, Vaughn does everything he can to make sure that his children get what they need. His oldest son went to college and studied law and now has a career and a child of his own. When Vaughn looks at his son, he feels as if he is looking back on himself, seeing his son’s accomplishments as a kind of redemption, the correction of his own past transgressions. His 19-year-old daughter is also enrolled in school.
In this desolate space at the corner of Severn and Elmira, the street reflects the last collapse of the sun. Vaughn has to go get ready for his shift at Hopkins that will last until the morning, when he’ll pick up the 6-year-old for another hauling job.
The streets are completely empty as he gets in his battered old truck and slams the door and drives away down this road strewn with refuse on either side.
Additional reporting by Baynard Woods