Black teens and young men hustling to sell bottled water at busy intersections has been a mainstay for years. But their desperate insistence on making sales and the public’s annoyance with them increased exponentially this year.
COVID-19, poverty and civic unease all kind of melded together with the water boys to make it a summer sideshow to the news narratives of pandemic, racial unrest, and the most divisive election in our lifetime.
In July, I spent an afternoon at the intersection of Northside Drive and Joseph E. Boone Boulevard where teens plied their trade and a sense of danger bubbled. The security guard at the BP station there started wearing a bulletproof vest, saying he had been threatened for calling the cops on a kid with a gun and that various bands of youths had vied for ownership of the corner.
Marc KD Boyd gives instructions to water sellers at the corner of Northside Drive and Joseph E. Boone Blvd as Sheldon Peoples, 16, hustles to the safety of the sidewalk. Photo by Bill Torpy
Credit: Bill Torpy
Credit: Bill Torpy
Into that mess stepped Boyd, a Marine, artist and gearhead who assembles airplanes at Lockheed Martin and lives up the street. He got them safety vests and, along with his friend KaCey Venning, tried to smooth out the youths’ rough edges and teach them some sales strategies and life lessons — including math and the basics of mechanics in his garage.
This week, about a half-dozen youths were still at it in Boyd’s garage, now making “Water Boyz in the Hood” T-shirts, which they are selling, naturally, on the streets.
“We’re teaching them to buy their own supplies, what sizes to make, to see what’s selling,” he said. “It’s an organizational lesson.”
In the summer, 22 teens and young men came around to his house for meals, the lessons, and a sense that someone gave a damn about them. That has dwindled to perhaps 10.
Boyd said a former stripper who is selling candy peeled off a few of his charges. She figured they were good at sales, so, why not have them try a new product?
“I can’t compete with a stripper,” he said. “I’ve been to three wars and seen a lot (he shakes his head) but I’ve seen nothing like that.”
Weird, he said, albeit in a 2020 kind of way.
The Marine in the 41-year-old Boyd is still evident in his lean, ramrod straight posture and his demand for manners and discipline.
I came across Boyd three years ago during the Atlanta elections when he ran a weekly open-mic event in East Atlanta called Feed a Starving Artist. Singers, poets, rappers, violinists, even mimes would compete and the top vote-getter would earn a small cash prize. It was a quasi-political process. “You persuade the crowd by your talent, or you could win by just bringing out your base,” he said.
Since he was attracting a diverse, ready-made crowd, local pols took note and would come by on meet-and-greets. Almost all of the mayoral candidates stopped by.
The events helped reinvigorate Boyd’s love of politics, although COVID-19 stopped any similar politicking this year.
A week ago, Boyd posted a picture outside State Farm Arena after having voted for the Libertarian candidate, Jo Jorgensen. He urged others to “go cancel out my vote.”
This year Trump made an effort to steal away some Black male voters like Boyd, partly by trotting out University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker and rappers like Ice Cube and Lil Wayne. Exit polls showed Trump got about 13% of the Black male vote in 2016, twice that of Black women. And a Gallup poll this year said 19% of Black men gave Trump a positive job approval rating.
“There’s a number of Black people who don’t have Democratic Party beliefs,” said Boyd, a Second Amendment fan who dislikes abortion but also dislikes “telling a woman what to do with her body.”
Marc KD Boyd, left, who started the open-mic event Feed a Starving Artist, with Atlanta mayoral candidate Kwanza Hall in 2017. Photo by Spen Spen Fleming
Credit: Spen Spen Fleming
Credit: Spen Spen Fleming
Boyd did vote for Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who is African American and running for the U.S. Senate. But Boyd said he has seen black leadership fall short: “Atlanta has the biggest wealth inequality in the country. It’s been run by Black people. I had to look in the mirror.”
Perhaps white leadership would have made it worse, I ventured.
“If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, wouldn’t we have a Merry Christmas?” he said, paraphrasing a Marine sergeant he once knew.
So, you ever consider Trump?
“I could have given him a look,” he said, before smiling. “Take the racism away and take the draft dodging away — that, the draft dodging, was a big non-starter for me.”
But Biden, too, fell short. “Everything Biden has accomplished he’s had to apologize for,” Boyd said. “The (1994) crime bill and the Iraq War, both of which affected me, are the two biggest things. Then the whole ’If you don’t vote for me you ain’t Black’ sunk the nail in the coffin.”
“Trump could have been a uniter; he didn’t have to strike fear in people,” Boyd said. “He’s a classic narcissist. Stroke his ego and I think we could have gotten reparations out of him with how scared Republicans are of him.”
“Instead he tore the scabs off. Racists are now calling themselves patriots.”
When Trump leaves the scene, “that’s going to cause a massive crater” in the Republican Party, Boyd said. “They need to smarten up. There are black people itching to leave the Democratic Party but have nowhere to go.”
“I’m about leveraging our vote for the maximum benefit,” he recently posted on Facebook. “That cannot be done piling it into one party.”
“We’re at a crossroads,” he told me.
Who? Black men?
No, he said, America.