James Shearer: fight to the finish

There was a hill right next to the school for wayward boys, where James Shearer attended classes as a teenager, and he used to race a classmate up and down the hill when there was nothing else to do. There was often nothing else to do, and James was in good shape, but he never won.

The classmate didn’t brag about this because their races were so close. It became like a ritual for them: racing up, racing down, James just a few steps behind, lying on the grass for a while, and then waving goodbye, too out of breath to even speak. This went on for some time, at the school for wayward boys. James was a good student there, with a particular talent for journalism – he remembers one story he wrote about the New York Knicks, which everyone in his class seemed to love. But that was only the first half of his life, when James was, “young and full of energy and happy at any point to give up another hour of sleep if needed.” He had no idea of the twists and turns his future would take.

During his third year in high school, James applied for and was admitted to summer camps at several New England colleges. These were camps designed to give high school students a sense of what campus life was like, and to offer deeper entry into a certain field of study. James was planning to attend a writing program at one of these camps, the following summer. The school year ended a few weeks before the camp started, and it was during this time that James determined the course of his life was determined for the next few years. There is one afternoon in particular that he recalls with great clarity. It was raining. He and his classmate had found each other, and, despite the rain, were preparing for another race up the hill. They stretched their legs and they eyed each other and then they took off, James right away falling a few steps behind. By the top of the hill they were even, and James had more left in him. As they approached the trees that served as their finish line, James pulled ahead, winning the race by a nose. They slowed to a halt and slumped over on their knees. It was the first time James had ever outrun the classmate.

Even after regaining his breath and waving goodbye, James was still too tired to think straight. He walked into the nearest building, the guidance counselor’s office, and sat on a chair in the lobby, leaning in close to the air-conditioning unit. His clothes were drenched in rainwater, and a puddle was forming on his chair and on the floor beneath him. He gasped in the cold air. Realizing he had no purpose in there but to cool off, the guidance counselor shooed James away, so he ran back to his dorm, hot with sweat, cold with rainwater, as tired as he’d ever been. He passed out on his bed in a daze. The next morning, James checked himself in to the school’s infirmary, complaining of a stuffy head, and the nurse took his temperature and immediately rushed him off to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. The doctors told him his recovery might take weeks. The school decided he couldn’t go off to camp.

The news was something James would later come to see as a turning point in his life. He felt betrayed – by the rain, by his school, by his own body. He felt that he had missed his only chance at success. He dropped out of school with only one semester’s worth of courses between him and his diploma, and he took to selling drugs instead. His mother kicked him out of the house, so he slept in an abandoned car near a friend’s house. By the age of 20, he had moved into a shelter.

It was his girlfriend’s idea to leave New York City. They’d met in the shelter, but an opportunity had come up for her in Boston, so she packed her things and bought a bus ticket. On the morning of her departure, James helped load the bags above her seat. She didn’t want to leave him, and he didn’t want her to go, but the bus was filling up, and the driver had started the gas. So his girlfriend formed a plan: James would hide in the bathroom until they were well on their way, and then he’d just flush the toilet and exit like any other rider. Before he could think twice about it, he was pulling the lock on the bathroom door. The bus took off, and he got comfortable. They arrived in Boston a few hours later. “I never returned for all the things I left behind,” he says.

There were only a few shelters in Boston at the time. Homeless people would often be admitted and told to sleep on the floor, due to a shortage of beds and space. Possibly in response to this, all major MBTA stations were vacated at night and left unlocked. James moved in to a little spot in Park Street station. He says he never felt safe enough there to fall fully asleep, but it was roomier than the shelter. He eventually found work, first as a security guard at a strip club, and later on the floor of a waterbed factory, where he stained baseboards and sometimes made deliveries. A few months later, James was arrested for assault and battery, and he was sent to a prison in Walpole for two years. He describes these years as the loneliest in his life, a time during which he read Robert Parker novels, walked the grounds, lifted weights, and mostly kept to himself. His only contact with the outside world was a weekly telephone call from his mother. He was released in 1988. He doesn’t keep in touch with anyone he met in prison, but he occasionally gets together with his friends from the waterbed factory.

It was Tim Hobson, a friend of James’, who first approached him with the idea of starting a street newspaper in Boston. He was living in a shelter in Harvard Square at the time, and Tim wanted to enlist his help along with that of a few others. The idea was to create an approachable system by which homeless people could make enough money to find housing somewhere. Anyone who applied to be a vendor would just have to buy as many copies of the newspaper as they like for a discount. Vendors could then choose a place to sell them at retail price and keep the difference. There wouldn’t be very much paperwork involved, and no one would be ineligible; the only rules would pertain to the conduct of the vendors while they were on shift. Having been homeless in Boston for over ten years by then, James knew that the history of homeless-run organizations in Massachusetts was extremely discouraging. At the same time, he had never been asked to help run an organization. “I never thought it would work,” James says, “but I couldn’t say no.” He decided that, in addition to benefiting the homeless, the newspaper should be about homelessness and the issues that mattered to the people he saw every day. He wanted it to have a political voice equal to the Globe and the Herald, and to disprove the myth that all homeless people were lazy. In less than a year, James would become the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, with each issue selling thousands of copies.

James remembers the exact thought that ran through his head during his last summer in high school. Alone in his dorm, or crossing the empty campus, he would think: If only it hadn’t rained. If only the guidance counselor hadn’t shooed him away for no reason. If only the nurse hadn’t noticed his fever. There was an almost visceral feeling that something had happened to him, that he had been conspired against. Sometimes a misfortune can be connected with something identifiable, and solved.

Sometimes the source is as vague as a cloud. In either case, James is determined to figure out the causes of homelessness, both his own and others’, and to work toward the solution. Twenty years ago, he was among the founding editors of Spare Change News, and he currently serves as the president of its board of directors. Having lived through the civil rights movement, he anticipates a homeless movement, in which a voice is given to the voiceless, and a definitive solution is found and agreed upon.

James Shearer is about to become homeless again. He sells Spare Change News in Coolidge Corner.






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