Floyd Vines steps through the door to the lobby of the J. Van Story Branch Apartments on the unit block of W. 20th St. and greets a series of people there. This is his lobby now, and these are his people, since he was elected tenant council president on April 23.
"This is Mr. Phil," Vines says, sidling up to a large, smiling man. "Mr. Phil, I want you to meet Mr. Ericson, from City Paper . . ."
The woman in the glass booth with the building's sign-in sheet is "brave," says Vines, because she stood up at a meeting at Red Emma's to complain about the prospect that she will lose her job in a year or two when the Housing Authority of Baltimore City sells this building to a private management company, part of a radical privatization plan called the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD).
"She was brave enough to stand up and say what would happen," Vines says. The woman declines to give her name.
Vines' signature appears on an April 29 letter to the City Council and another to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan asking that the program be delayed and reconsidered in favor of something more democratic, like a resident co-op-a prospect that appears remote. He and some activists-the letter to Donovan has 95 signatures-say the tenants and workers have not had their views integrated into the RAD plan.
Now Floyd Vines is among the last hopes of those seeking a place at a negotiating table that does not exist. He represents tenant democracy in the public housing system. "They say I won by landslide. . . . that's like 75 votes out of 357 people," Vines says, as dissatisfied with the turnout as he is satisfied by his victory.
Whether Vines, who has lived at J. Van Story Branch for about two years, can have an impact remains to be seen. The odds are against it, and the building has clearly rebuffed previous efforts. There are holes here and there in the sheetrock. There is rust on the pipes in the stairwell. The bulletin board in the office has a federal minimum wage announcement dated 1997.
There has been as much as 2 inches of water in this very lobby in the past week because a pipe broke in a common bathroom on the floor, Vines and Mr. Phil say. The pipes leak and break throughout the building on a regular basis, according to Vines and other residents-indicating that the whole plumbing system is near the end of its life.
The elevators are about the same.
"We've had times in here when we didn't even have one," Vines says, surveying the three elevators. He asks the maintenance guy when that was last time that happened. The maintenance guy says they were all out at once back in February-for nearly two weeks.
When the elevators did not work, the residents who couldn't take the stairs were stuck on their floors. Vines says he checked on his neighbors on the sixth floor and offered to bring groceries. "They didn't want to be a burden," he says. "They were trying to give me money, I said, 'No, no, I understand you're on a fixed income.'"
Everyone here is on a fixed income. Social Security, Social Security disability payments. Maybe a small pension here and there. Very few-if any-could afford to rent a similar place at market prices.
"You would think that HUD would at least have a plan to put enough money aside to fix the elevators," Vines says.
Hence the housing authority's decision to sell this building, along with 21 others, to private bidders in a series of deals that began last summer ("Sale On," Mobtown Beat, April 9). The authority says it would cost $800 million to fix all the buildings it owns. As a matter of policy, the federal government has for decades declined to fund city housing authorities well enough to maintain their housing stock. The RAD program is meant to get some private money (raised substantially through a tax credit given to corporations) to offset the missing federal allotment.
"All the profits these corporation have been making is because they are not putting any money back into the infrastructure," Vines says. "The same thing is true everywhere, with the city's waterworks, the electric grid is going down. Roads and bridges."
Vines appreciates such things. A journeyman electrician, he says he has worked for Bethlehem Steel and he was in Local 333 of the International Longshoreman's Association. He says he had a friend at the steel mill, an older guy he remembers as "Mr. John," who was in his 40s maybe when Vines was in his early 20s-40 years ago. "And he was just tough," Vines says. "He'd make me feel like a punk, the way he could work."
Vines is clear he was no slouch in the work department, often working full time while attending college. He says he's lucky to have come up at a time when work, well, worked. "I had one professor and he said to us, 'Don't worry if anyone says you're fired. Go to the next job, the next place, and you'll find it's better there.'"
Mr. John was a "straight arrow," Vines says. And years after they worked together, maybe 5 years ago,Vines ran into him, sitting on a bench downtown. "I thought he was homeless," he recalls. He sat down and they recognized each other. Mr. John told Vines his wife had died after an illness. He'd remortgaged the house as part of that, so he lost that too. And then, just a little while before they met, Mr. John got a letter from the steel company rescinding a good part of his pension. "They were asking for money back," Vines says. "I said, 'You gotta be kidding me.' At that point I understood, if they can fuck a white guy like that, a straight arrow who gave everything he had to the company, then as a black guy I know I ain't got nothin' coming."
This is the feeling a lot of Americans have gotten over the past decade or two, but Vines says it with an inflection that sounds more like amusement than bitterness-the attitude one develops after solving a difficult puzzle or becoming a Buddhist monk.
Vines was presented this puzzle in the form of a pink slip from Aetna lighting in 1998.
"I got released from that job, and I went through a midlife crisis," Vines says. "I became a serial bank robber."
Vines says he was uncertain whether to tell the story at first, but he laughs about it now. "I was stressed at the time. You kind of hit the wall. You realize that unless you hit the lottery or something, you're not gonna have the money you thought you'd have stashed away when you were in your 20s. So it was like a midlife crisis, but, like my brother said, he says, 'Why didn't you buy a Corvette?'"
A frozen bank account with $285-it was linked to his old employer, Vines says, even though it was his own money-left him without any means.
"I heard that commercial where Johnny Carson's guy-Ed McMahon-he says you can get money out of a bank when you haven't put money into the bank," Vines says. After a week or two broke, "I said, yeah, he's right, let's go get some money out of the bank. And so I pass them the note."
As is his habit, Vines had done his homework. His note specified "no alarm, no dye pack," and he added "this idiot thing"-he says now, because it cost him years more behind bars-that he would shoot if his demand was not met.
Vines says he was not armed, but he did dress the part.
"I looked just like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator," Vines says. "I had those exact sunglasses he had. I had a blue jacket, blue pants and a blue work cap. It was nondescript. One teller told them I was a white guy, 6-2." (Vines is black and maybe 5-8).
What Vines did not know at first was that robbing banks is, like any job, kind of a grind. He was hitting teller windows at maybe $7,000 a pop.
"The most I got out of any bank was, I think, the one up in Westminster and it was like $12,000," Vines says. "I didn't realize I was robbing a bank like every seven weeks. Every time I got down to $1,500, I would get my map out."
By early 1999, Vines' image graced a broadcast of Fox 45's Maryland's Most Wanted, according to a story in The Baltimore Sun. The FBI captured him on Jan. 17 of that year "within hours" of the broadcast. He was suspected of robbing branches of NationsBank in White Marsh, Essex, Mt. Airy, Marlboro and Parkville, plus the Parkville Federal Savings and Loan, the Sun story said.
He was sentenced to eight years.
"I learned a lot," Vines says. "When I learned what they was gonna spend to keep me there, I said, 'Why not just give me $70,000 and keep the other $170,000 you gonna spend, and we'll call it square. I promise never to do nothing like this ever again.'"
His lawyer laughed, Vines says.
His impression of prison? "This looks like some really nice college campus up in the mountains . . . other than the fence." Vines ended up doing several jobs in the joint, and says he became a mediator for some of the younger inmates. "They were looking at me like I was Solomon or something," he laughs.
"So I said when I get out, I was gonna dedicate myself on this planet to always speak the truth, always do the right thing," Vines says. "I learned how to live on what I make."
Outside the J. Van Story Branch, Vines introduces a reporter to two residents sitting in a Ford. He says to the driver, Will Daniels, "I know you could have done the job" of council president.
"I know we picked the right man," Daniels replies.
The HABC on-site manager is a Mr. Harrison. Vines means to confront him with the trouble he sees all around. "He treats the residents like children," Vines says. Messages left at the building's voice mail and emails to HABC spokeswoman Cheron Porter asking to meet him brought no response.
The latest complaints revolve around the exterior paint job under way. Vines say he has no idea how much it costs-he says he was told not to worry about it. The windows are wrapped in plastic; men carry five-gallon buckets up in the elevators that work. There is scaffolding over the entrance.
And Vines says every unit's sliding door was blocked from the outside with a piece of lumber. He defeated his by disassembling the door handle from the inside, which knocked it loose. He says he needs the fresh air and imagines the other residents do too.
The fumes? Not a worry. He would also like the residents to be able to use the courtyard picnic area when the workers are not there-weekends and evenings, say.
"And since they're going to keep all those doors and windows closed," Vines says, "I said, 'Can we please get the air conditioning turned on a little earlier this year?'" He says management did not give him an answer. There will be a meeting.
For lunch, we just walk to the corner joint called K&K, where a person standing outside tells him he's at the best lunch spot. The place has the bulletproof barrier and turnstyle system you see in tough neighborhoods all over. Holding a copy of the Nation of Islam's The Final Call, open to a story about a CIA-based conspiracy, Vines is talking about the morale in his building.
"I get a general sense of the despair, and I asked how long it's been this way," Vines says. "People told me it's not always been like this."
A previous manager would speak to the corner boys out front-respectfully telling them to ply their trade elsewhere. Harrison doesn't do that, Vines says.
The building's social life is also flagging, Vines says: "We used to have TV night. I asked if we could sometimes do documentaries."
Vines is big into documentaries, mainly, he says, because the quality of fiction is so poor. "But I'm old enough now where I watch five minutes and I know what's gonna happen and who this going to happen to and what's going to happen to this person-it's so formulaic," he says.
Vines prefers films like The Corporation, the 2003 Canadian documentary about the pathological behavior built into that legal structure. He says he's seen it four or five times.
Vines recites: "From doubt comes questions. And from questions, you go and find answers. With answers comes understanding, and understanding leads to wisdom."
He talks in torrents. At some point he asks if I know what backs the U.S. currency. He suggests I read a book called Cracking the Code and seems surprised I have not. The key, he explains, is the birth registration. The book explains how these birth registrations, the first thing your mother signed for you hours after you were born, are the collateral for the loans the federal government takes from the Federal Reserve, Vines says, adding that he knows of a guy who found his birth registration was held in Saudi Arabia. "It's still slavery," he says.
Back at the J. Van Story Branch, we wait at the elevator bank a long time. Several residents gather round, three in wheelchairs. When the middle door opens, two residents wheel in before the maintenance guy rushes up and shoos them out. That one is broken, he says: You'll get stuck. We get the next one.
In Vines' one-bredroom apartment, we enjoy our cheese steaks-Vines' with fried onions, provolone and mustard-and he puts on a Zeitgeist DVD-Part III of a conspiracy-soaked extravaganzas that stoked controversy when it was released in 2007.
The origin of fractional reserve banking is recounted, and at the point Ron Paul-the longtime U.S. congressman and perpetual presidential also-ran-takes the screen, I'm asking Vines if he's all-in on this stuff.
Vines says the last part of the film-Addendum-is even better. "I'm moving toward the one where they say, 'What are we, stupid?'" he says.
Money is debt, the TV warns ominously.
The links between the conspiracies-and between the conspiracies and the issues of income and wealth disparity, environmental degradation, even the degradation of our food system-are never far from Vines' mind. He explains how stress in the body is reflected in the health of the fetus and the newborn. The stress of modern living-for poor people-has destroyed a generation, he says.
The TV screen assures us that the bank lends you counterfeit money, and thus you have no obligation to pay it back. The fractional reserve system, the DVD advises, is "modern slavery."
Vines, who has a common-law wife named Barbara "Lucy" Cole, sometimes hosts a trio of grandchildren in his modest apartment decorated with radical posters.
But he spends much of his time politicking in the building, or at Red Emma's, where a few months ago he impressed the collective enough that they suggested him when Jeff Singer asked about people to help him build a new movement of public housing tenants and the workers who tend to them-all now threatened by RAD, gentrification, and the 40-year policy, at all levels of government, to allow buildings like the J. Van Story Branch to decay.
Since then Vines has testified at a City Council hearing and gone on the radio to bear witness to the problem and suggest solutions. Singer says Vines has been an excellent representative, and is untroubled by his unorthodox views about money, the CIA, and the way the world works.
"Floyd is an autodidact," Singer says. "When you do that, what you learn is not necessarily what the mainstream learns."
They are lessons that serve Floyd Vines well in his new role as the political leader of a 357-unit building on what's become prime Baltimore real estate.
"Most of the people in this building, they're elderly people, they're afraid," he said when I first called him in April. "Most of those folks grew up at a time when black people could not drink from the water fountain.
"So I tell people-we don't have to be afraid. We're old. We have nothing to lose."