Lifetime dream blossoms amid used furniture


April 29, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I am dining at Papa Myers' Deli, on Washington Boulevard in Southwest Baltimore, where I am having a highly intellectual conversation about either Freud's theory on firstborns or the Orioles' first base problems, I forget which, when Josephine Jackson walks into the place and practically rips the corned beef sandwich out of my mouth.

"What about Our Neighbors' Keeper?" Jackson asks.

"Mmmppphhh?" I reply.

"Why haven't you been there?" she says.

And, like that, Jackson takes my corned beef sandwich hostage, lifts me across the table and carries me across the street to Our Neighbors' Keeper, her lifetime dream all dressed up as a secondhand furniture store.

OK, OK, I exaggerate a little. It was definitely the Orioles I was discussing, and not Freud, and Jackson didn't literally carry me across Washington Boulevard. But she could have. In fact, she's trying to carry a lot of people on her broad back, and she's got one of those personalities that says: Try to stop me, and I rip out your larynx.

In a nice way, though.

Like right now, sitting in one of these big, secondhand, overstuffed chairs ($25, cheap) at Our Neighbor's Keeper, she watches a guy trying to put some curtains up and bellows:

"You mess up my window, you and I are gonna fight."

"Yes, ma'am," says the guy, who himself is built like maybe the Belvedere Hotel.

"Thank you, darlin'-doo," Jackson trills.

"Thank you," the Belvedere Hotel trills back.

Now Jackson's on her feet, doing a little instant inventory of her store: a stereo for $30, a lamp for $5, some drinking glasses going anywhere from 10 cents to a buck, on and on like this from refrigerators through salt shakers.

"And we'll always bargain," she says, which is fair enough since, face it, life itself is no bargain.

Jackson knows. Our Neighbor's Keeper opened three weeks ago, on Washington Boulevard just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, with an eye toward helping those having a rough time of it.

"When I thought about prices," she says, lifting her eyes slightly heavenward, "I had a consultation with the Almighty. And he said, 'Keep prices moderate, Josephine.' Put it this way: Our prices are inspired. They're strictly for people having money troubles."

Like the fellow who came in the other day, had just enough money to buy a fine secondhand bedroom set, so Jackson threw in a mattress and box spring for free. Or the refrigerator she let slip away for $50.

"We want to make some money here, but the store is based on more than that," she says. "I mean, I went to a thrift shop, and they had the same prices as K-Mart's brand new stuff. Where's the thrift?

"We have to look out for people. Greed and selfishness took over where we ought to have compassion. Believe me, I have experience."

She's 48 now and married with grown children. But, at 20, when she had her first child, "The boy's mother said she would help out, but she didn't. And I didn't know where to turn to get my life started."

She spent the next 27 years working steadily, but held onto this dream of a store for people who need a little help. Around her today, she sees reflections of her own tough times: those in this neighborhood out of work, homeless, begging for handouts.

"Like me," says Jody Gregg, who helps out at the store. "I was homeless a couple of months. I slept in bus stops, in apartment buildings."

"He came in here," Jackson says, "with torn clothes, all raggedy and hungry. I told him, I'll help you, but you gotta be honest with me. And he has been."

Gregg's pretty good with electronics. Another guy lifts heavy stuff. Somebody else has a pickup truck. You use people's strengths, try to slip past old weaknesses. It's a way of looking at life: fighting it, instead of lamenting the fates.

"People are afraid," says Jackson, whose church, the Miracle Deliverance Evangelical Center, on Walbrook Avenue, has helped considerably. "They don't want to trust each other. We want to get past that."

She defies the world to stand in her way. The adrenalin is bursting out of her. It's just a secondhand store, but it's taken Josephine Jackson too long to let anything get in its way.

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