Episode 4: Why me?

It's like visiting a small town...but it's also like visiting the remaining survivors of an apocalypse.

Carvell Wallace goes to his hometown of McKeesport, PA and talks with his childhood friend, Shamrace Mims. Decades ago, they rode bikes and played Atari. They sat on porches in the late afternoon, throwing rocks and talking rap crews and Transformers. That was of course until Carvell moved. The town changed. And Carvell's path and Shamrace's path... they diverged



Shamrace Mims grew up in McKeesport, PA, a block away from Carvell Wallace. They used to spend days riding bikes around their neighborhood. Today, Shamrace lives in Pittsburgh, PA.


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Episode 4 Transcript


Closer Than They Appear: Episode 4
Carvell Wallace: [00:00:08] I'm pretty close now. I feel definitely kind of nervous, like I sort of want to pull out of the whole thing.
[00:00:24] The last time I visited the town where I grew up, McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the year was 1999. Bill Clinton was president. People were still printing out directions on MapQuest. I thought regular folks talking on cell phones was like, the most ridiculous thing I'd ever seen. I myself had just bought a fax machine. It was also the last time I heard anything about my childhood best friend, Shamrace Mims. It's not a name you forget.
[00:00:57] It's a name you can love. I mean, I don't know I guess maybe I wonder what Shamrace is going to think of me, like if he's going to think that I'm... I don't know. I'm no longer a kid from McKeesport, I guess.
[00:01:14] Or maybe maybe you always are?
[00:01:21] I'm Carvell Wallace and this is Closer Than They Appear.
[00:01:29] When I was a kid in the early 80s, Shamrace lived one street over from me and I don't really remember how we met. I just remember this energetic, chubby kid with thick permanently smudged glasses and sloppily processed hair and a kind of bright and mischievous twinkle in his eye that always made me feel like something really funny was about to happen.
[00:01:52] We rode bikes and we played Atari. We showed up at each other's houses at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings. We sat on porches in the late afternoon, throwing rocks and talking about rap crews and Transformers. We had a childhood friendship. That was of course until I moved. And from that point on, my path and Shamrace's path... they diverged.
[00:02:54] I'm going to tell you more about that later on, but first let me tell you about the time I went back, more than a decade after I left. I wanted to show my then girlfriend, soon wife, and then later still ex-wife, the place where I had raced bikes with my old friend, but everything was different. Streets that I remembered as buzzing and lively were now empty.
[00:03:19] The house I lived in was abandoned. Lawns were overgrown. The town seemed to have just died. I remember this one moment from that trip.
[00:03:34] My ex and I were standing outside of Shamrace's house and we noticed this lone female figure with ratty clothes and a faraway look in her eyes walking slowly toward us down the middle of the street.
[00:03:48] She asked if we were thinking about buying. "No," we explained. We're not going to buy. I told her that my childhood friend Shamrace used to live there. "Oh," she said.
[00:04:00] "I know Shamrace. He's... away right now.
[00:04:07] I didn't ask her what that meant. I didn't have to.
Shamrace: [00:04:19] Carvell, there you go right there. What's up, bro? How you're doing, man? What's good with you?
Carvell Wallace: [00:04:20] How weird is this? Is this weird?
Shamrace: [00:04:21] Man, yeah it is. It's kinda weird, man.

Carvell Wallace: I can’t believe it man. I guess we’re gonna go back to McKeesport. What about that kid Maco, remember that kid Maco? He was a mess even then, I can't even imagine what happened to him.
Shamrace: [00:05:43] It's funny you bring him up, because every year somebody goes "Where's Maco?" And make everybody... we're on a crusade mission to find Maco and we can't find him yet, but we're... he's around here somewhere, man. Yeah, we're looking for that guy.
Carvell Wallace: [00:04:31] Now it's 2017. The first thing I want to tell you about Shamrace is that he's doing well. I mean, he's in a serious relationship. He's working on starting his own business, opening up juice bars. And right now, he's a cook at a local college.
[00:06:11] The next thing I want to tell you about Shamrace is that he doesn't live in McKeesport anymore. He didn't even want to meet there. We met in Pittsburgh and then drove the 13 mile road along the river back to our old neighborhood. And this is because McKeesport isn't doing well. In a sense, McKeesport is away right now.
Shamrace: [00:06:37] Like, I'm a survivor, man. I call myself a survivor out of that town, like, it got deep.
Carvell Wallace: [00:06:50] McKeesport was first a coal mining town and then it was a steel town. When they built the factory, pretty much everyone there went to work at it and soon, it was the fastest growing municipality in the country. Immigrants from Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, they flooded the town and soon, they were joined by black families, who themselves were trying to escape the violent racism and poverty in the South. My grandparents were a part of that group. But the racism followed them. In 1971, the Pennsylvania state government forced integration of the two McKeesport housing projects. A month later, a flyer containing the following text appeared on car windshields around town.
[00:07:37] "Do you want the VD to rise among your children as it does whenever blacks move in? Do you want your daughter raped, your son shaken down for his lunch money, or your wife to live in abject fear? Forced integration of blacks into white neighborhoods will not change the spots on a leopard. Savages will continue to be savages."
[00:08:07] My mother was in high school that year. She lived in one of those housing projects.
[00:08:13] I was born three years later.
[00:08:19] Poverty eventually came for everyone in McKeesport. By 1987, the U.S. steel mill had shut down completely. Unemployment skyrocketed. Tax revenue dried up. Schools were underfunded. Roads were not paved. Unemployment and poverty were over 10 percent and for black McKeesporters, those numbers nearly doubled.
[00:08:39] And then after all that, that's when crack came.
Shamrace: [00:08:46] And people got rich. I was one of them. I got rich. I'd had it all. And I lost it all. Like you know what I'm saying? Like, it got real. Dropped out of high school, man. It was on and it was like, we had too much money. I mean, and then it all goes downhill from there. It's a typical story, man, in every neighborhood.
[00:09:15] You never got caught up in that though.
Carvell Wallace: [00:09:24] I never really got caught up in it because I left the neighborhood before things got bad, before Shamrace started selling drugs and getting arrested. First I moved up the hill to White Oak with my Aunt Bea.
[00:09:36] And then when I was 14, back to L.A. with my mom, where I attended an arts high school and discovered things like Shakespeare and Jimi Hendrix and skinny dipping with white girls.
[00:09:46] Then I went to New York University, studied experimental theater, got married, had kids, became a writer.
[00:09:53] I got out. I got out and in a sense that always bothered me. I used to feel like I had abandoned some kind of responsibility by doing that.
[00:10:07] But now, looking at everything that happened in McKeesport after I left, I wasn't so sure.
Shamrace: [00:10:18] I mean, I'm telling you it's funny like, about two three months ago, I was like I wonder where that dude Carvell was at, man. Oh, make this left right here, a sharp left.
Carvell Wallace: [00:10:31] How did you feel when you got the message? Was it weird?
[00:10:35] Were you surprised?
Shamrace: [00:10:36] Yeah, because you know, where I'm coming from you don't trust nobody. Somebody reaching out to you, man. You don't know who this is. It might be a guy from way back trying to kill you. You don't know. You don't know what's going on. So you know, you try to be protective. And I was like it's kind of weird, but who knows Carvell? Like just to say that name, this person has to be real because no one knew I knew him.
Carvell Wallace: [00:10:56] Right.
Shamrace: [00:10:56] You know what I'm saying? So for them to be saying him, it has to be...
Shamrace: [00:10:59] You know, that's wild. It has to be real.
Carvell Wallace: [00:11:00] Yeah, left?
Shamrace: [00:11:00] So you gonna make a left.
Carvell Wallace: [00:11:47] The main thing I remember riding bikes and jump jump ramps in the alley.
[00:11:52] That was my favorite.
Shamrace: [00:11:53] Turn right right here. We had a the alley that connected our houses.

Carvell Wallace: The day is overcast, heavy and ominous-looking clouds hover above the distant hills, which are now turning gold and red with autumn leaves.
As we drive into McKeesport, I can see that only one of every four or five houses is even occupied. The rest are boarded up or peering darkly onto the streets from broken windows. A car tire, a discarded stroller, a shopping cart, fallen trees, warped plywood, are strewn haphazardly about in lots or on sidewalks or sometimes even in the middle of the road.
Shamrace: [00:11:58] This is it. Back when we were younger, this was thriving. Like all the parents had... people's grass was cut and you know, it was like it was all so nice.
[00:12:10] It was all so nice. We used to stand in the street barefooted while it rained. And run up and down like it was like a neighborhood back then.
Carvell Wallace: [00:12:20] It really was.
[00:12:20] There were kids everywhere, I remember.
Shamrace: [00:12:22] Yeah, it was kids everywhere and this was my house right here.
Carvell Wallace: [00:12:26] I used to love coming to your house.
Shamrace: [00:12:26] Yeah, because it was a fun house.
Carvell Wallace: [00:12:29] It was fun, yeah.
Shamrace: [00:12:30] It was the fun house. Everybody wanted to come to my house because it was a fun house, because there was no rules.
[00:12:36] But then again, those being no rules led to... you know, there should have been some rules. I shouldn'tve been allowed to have that much power that young, man. It was just ridiculous.
Carvell Wallace: [00:13:39] Hey, if you're enjoying the show check out our Facebook watch page. We've been doing a video series that deals with some of the harder questions that we ask in the show. And I think you'll really like it. We're at Facebook.com/closershow. Follow the page so you can see new videos as they come out.
[00:13:58] And on top of that, I really love hearing your voicemails. I've asked some questions and you guys have called in with answers. I'll play you one when we're finished with this story.
[00:14:08] But we're not finished yet.

Shamrace: [00:12:54] See after that, when we go into my teenage years my dad got sick. So it was like I ran the house you know, with the drugs and stuff and all that, it became you know just like the chill spot, like everybody would come over here and chill you know. We started selling drugs out of this house.
[00:13:14] And man, it went on for years.
Carvell Wallace [00:14:18] After we left Shamrace's house, we went up the street to mine. Like his, my childhood home is abandoned and destroyed. The roof of the front porch is caving in, my bedroom windows are staring blankly at me as if they don't recognize me at all.
[00:14:38] That's it. 1804 Converse St.
[00:14:46] Yeah, man.
[00:14:46] This used to be a neighborhood, a small town where everybody knew you and in some ways, it still is.
[00:14:55] While we're standing in the street with Shamrace, a few people begin to come out of their houses.
Neighbor: [00:15:00] Every day above ground is a good day for me.
[00:15:00] Just hearing voices outside is such a rare event that people have to come out and find out what could be the cause of that. An old guy that Shamrace has known for his whole life starts walking towards us. He's clutching an old cell phone and his jeans are ripped. His jacket is dirty.
[00:15:22] He stops and talks with us about politics for a minute. It's clear his mind is sharp, but his look is like he's barely hanging on. But before he leaves, he calmly and certainly predicts that Trump will bring about the end of civilization.
Neighbor: [00:15:44] We going to war. Trump wants to go to war. And it's going to be the last war. Trump wants to go to war and we're going, believe me.
Carvell Wallace: [00:15:52] Others come out over the next hour or so.
[00:15:56] A minivan filled with old ladies carrying the Bible stops to see what we're doing and ask us about our families and remind us to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as our savior. Meanwhile, the driver waves away the producer's microphone with the quiet confidence of a Jedi. Across the street neighbors come out of their house and sit in the front porch and talk with us for a while.
Carvell Wallace: [00:16:23] Each person that comes out knows Shamrace, remembers my family, but the vibe simply put, is one of walking dead. Teeth are missing.
[00:16:36] Eyes are yellowed and blank, constantly scanning the horizon for threats. Cigarettes are smoked, while drug tales and near death experiences are recounted in ripped and husky voices. It is like a small town, but it is also like the remaining survivors of an apocalypse.
[00:17:05] I mean, you know what I... the main thing is I consider myself very lucky, right. Because I didn't I didn't make the decision that changed my life. They got made for me. I mean, McKeesport was the best place for me to land with that family, with my uncle and aunt. They checked my homework every single night, Shamrace. Every single night. They checked every single one of them.
Shamrace: [00:17:25] Stuff like that. Yeah yeah yeah yeah.
[00:17:29] I remember the structure like almost like the Cosby, like his house is like I didn't have that. Like, I could go home, and be like Carvell... you know like dinnertime, like Carvell has to go in because it's dinner time. I'm like, what do you mean it's dinner time? Like, he's just gonna eat and run back outside or something?
[00:17:45] But no, he has to come in and wash his hands sit down eat then he'll be back out. You know what I'm saying? Like that was structured. I knew as a kid that I didn't we didn't have that structure in our house. But I knew you guys had that structure. And I remember that like so when I did when you did move I was like, well you know his parents probably got him the heck up out of here, quick fast in a hurry.
[00:18:05] They seen what the neighborhood was going into.
Shamrace: [00:18:50] Look at this place. You'd either been up caught up or.
Carvell Wallace: [00:18:54] I would've absolutely been caught up in it.
[00:18:54] There's no doubt about it. There's no doubt about it.
Shamrace: [00:18:57] You know, you are what you're associated... you know, who you're around. That's how you act. If your friends got goodwill and good doing good, that's been a run off on you. If they're doing bad, that's going to run off on you. You're going to do bad.
Carvell Wallace: [00:19:10] Well, you were my friend. I would have done whatever you did. You know what I mean? It would've been me and you.

Carvell Wallace: I was airlifted out of McKeesport a year before a crack came. And it's great that I went to school and did my homework and worked and read and followed up on opportunities and took chances and traveled and educated myself. But Shamrace stayed and he also did what made the most sense for him, which was to make money for himself and his family. And he too did his work and followed up on opportunities and took chances, but because the opportunities and chances were different, they led him to different things.
Shamrace's mother died young. She was in poor health even when we were kids and then his father got sick soon after. So the task of managing the household soon fell to Shamrace.
Shamrace: [00:19:34] Basically, like when I was 16 17 years old, 19, I'm taking care of him, like I'm paying all the bills. He's just getting a check in the mail, like I'm writing out the bills. I'm going shopping. I'm making sure he's... I'm washing his clothes. I'm not going to school no more, but I'm running a whole house, you know what I'm saying? I'm the man. Like everybody's coming to see me.
Carvell Wallace: [00:19:54] And that could also mean danger. 
Shamrace: [00:20:05] I was playing PlayStation with a guy I knew. You know, he was over at my house, we were playing Playstation and stuff and he's like, you got such and such. And I was like, yeah. You know, I got it. Just, when we're done playing the game, just go get your money and I got it, you know what I'm saying? So we were done playing the game, you know we're smoking weed, getting drunk and everything. I let him out the house. He comes back with his brother.
[00:20:28] So now... he's... he's knocking at the door with his brother. And I know these guys. I known 'em for ever. So I ain't think nothing of it.
[00:20:37] Soon as he open the door, they pulled out the guns.
Shamrace: [00:20:44] Now this is somebody I knew my whole life. So me... I'm thinking you're not going to shoot me. Man you’ve known me forever. You’re not going to shoot me. I start talking crazy and you’re not going to shoot me. He shoots me, in the chest. Not me... in the stomach. So you know, it took me over two years... two and a half years to walk again.
Carvell Wallace: [00:21:08] Did you... What did you think in that moment when you got shot in the stomach? Do remember what ran through your mind?
Shamrace: [00:21:13] I thought that was it. That was like finally.
[00:21:16] It was like, oh it was almost like, oh wow it's relief. OK, this is how it's going to end.
[00:21:22] I mean, it was like that at that moment like, oh this is how it's going to happen, like you know, but I woke up in the hospital. And I wasn't dead. Like and the guy told me and the doctor was like, whoa, if you weren't such a heavyset guy you might not be here right now.
[00:21:40] Yeah, and that's the first words I heard when I woke up. If you weren't such a heavyset guy, your life... you might not be here right now.
Carvell Wallace: [00:21:50] If you weren't such a heavyset guy, you might not be here right now.
[00:22:00] This sentence sits with me pretty much every day since I heard it. Shamrace Mims took a stream of bullets into his body on the very same porch we used to play matchbox cars and eat candy bars on. And the reason he survived, the reason he's even here to tell us about it wasn't because he's this tremendous badass, this no limits soldier who's always ready to fight for his. It's because he was chubby.
Shamrace: [00:22:30] So where I'm at now is I got a plan. I want to I want a juice bar.
[00:22:36] I want a couple juice bars, four, five, as many as I can get. Sit back for the rest of my life and enjoy it. I don't think I enjoyed no part of my life. It's been a constant work, constant, constant work, constant work. I've yet to sit down and relax in the last 30 years. It's always a movement.
[00:23:01] I met a girl that I think is going to be there for the rest of my life. And that's that.
Carvell Wallace: [00:23:08] That's that. It's is good to see you're doing well, man. You know it's like you said you said you're a survivor, you know.
Carvell Wallace: [00:23:25] Life when uninterrupted by shootings, does have something of a natural order to its progression. The mistakes and recklessness and selfishness of the youth are underwritten by the experience and charity and patience of the adults.
[00:24:17] But what happens to a community when a lot of people don't even live to be adults? How does it go forward then?
[00:24:34] So one of the questions I was gonna ask you, I mean, did you did you vote in the last election?
[00:24:41] Why didn't you vote?
[00:24:41] If I can ask that.
Shamrace: [00:24:48] We can go on... No, this is good. This is good. This is good. But like I don't believe in...
[00:24:53] I don't believe in the whole set up. I just to me as the big dog and pony show, yeah like where is this country going, right now?
[00:25:01] Right now. Like where are we going? Where are we going? Where are we going?
[00:25:05] OK, black people wanted a black president. You got your black president. You know, people get mad when I say it shouldn't make a difference. I mean, what'd he... what? It didn't make one difference. To me, no president makes a difference because when every president gets in there... this is messed up. Where is this country headed to? What do you all really want? Come on, man. It is getting ridiculous. Like where are we going?
[00:25:29] So you know you've got the common working folk. It gets up every morning takes a shower, get in his car, go to work, come home. He pays his bills, he pays his car note, and that's just his life, you know what I'm saying?
[00:25:38] And that's like, for real, you're stuck.
Carvell Wallace: [00:25:43] Do you feel... I mean, but that's that's what you have now. You work every day, pay your bills.
Shamrace: [00:25:48] I work every day, pay my bills, but I'm on something... I'm trying to open stuff.
[00:25:53] I got ideas up here.
[00:25:56] I'm going to knock the board down. You know, I'm going to be old, but I'm going to do it. I'm going to run a couple businesses and I'm going to you know, live the life that I should have lived coming straight out of high school. That's my goal to do it before... I'm going to be old probably and my kids are going to reap the benefits and that's the way it is. That's how you're supposed to live. You've got to pass down wealth.
Carvell Wallace: [00:26:30] How many kids do you have?
Shamrace: [00:26:31] Two, yeah yeah.
Carvell Wallace: [00:26:33] A boy and a girl?
Shamrace: [00:26:33] Yup, a boy and a girl.
[00:26:36] You know, you know my name is Shamrace. You know, this the only Shamrace in the world. You know, everybody has a name that's common. Or somebody else has a name. You will not find another Shamrace in the whole world I think. We done tried... And that's amazing to me like there's no... so that's my son's name. Shamrace, you know what I'm saying, because it's just me and him.
Carvell Wallace: [00:27:08] Once I told my girlfriend, who's an Iranian immigrant about McKeesport and Shamrace and a little bit about my feelings of survivor's guilt for abandoning my hometown. "It's very American," she said, "This idea that you were connected to a land just because you're from there. You could not have survived there. You had to leave in order to do what you did. Shamrace had to leave in order to do what he did. So in that sense, you are exactly the same as me and hundreds of millions of other people on this planet. You guys are refugees.
Carvell Wallace: [00:27:53] I did not like this.
[00:27:55] This idea that I was a refugee. It struck me wrong, but I couldn't explain why. I just felt defensive in the conversation. So we changed the subject and finished our dinner. That night, I lay awake thinking about it. And it finally occurred to me what had troubled me so much about her comment. It was that I did not think that Americans could be refugees.
[00:28:27] Like so many of us, I was raised with and still apparently have deeply embedded in me this sense of American exceptionalism. War torn streets and huddled masses fleeing for their safety, carrying everything they own on their backs, we had been taught that this was the stuff of other countries, of lesser countries, and I had believed that. Without even knowing that I believed that. But visiting McKeesport, it was hard to deny that she was right.
[00:29:08] Shamrace told me that he doesn't vote and that's that's a sacrilegious idea to many people I know. But standing on the streets, these streets that you can only survive by either luck or escape, streets that are just like thousands of streets and thousands of towns and neighborhoods across the country, not voting actually makes sense. Obama didn't help McKeesport. Bush didn't help it. Bill Clinton didn't help it. You think Trump is going to help it? I recently learned that this country has spent 250 million dollars per day, every day every single day since September 11th 2001, on the war on terror. That means the amount of money spent on just one half of one of those days, could mean a world of difference to McKeesport. So why isn't that happening?
[00:30:07] Why isn't that happening?
[00:30:10] Why should Shamrace care about the government when there's 250 million dollars a day worth of evidence that the government doesn't care about Shamrace? 
[00:30:43] Next week, I talk to two people who most certainly don't believe in it and they probably don't even believe in believing in it. Commentator Van Jones and lawyer and advocate Rabia Chaudry, they've both been on the inside of government and on the outside. So what does it mean in their minds for us to go forward together as a country? And can a person like Shamrace and a place like McKeesport come along?

Caller: I’m calling with a message for a former friend of mine.
Carvell Wallace:  So, I've been asking you to call me and share what you'd like to say to someone in your life that you're estranged from. And I've got to be honest, I love hearing these messages even when there are messages that are difficult to listen to. So this woman who asked us not to use her name, called and had this to say to her former friend: "I want to understand why you still don't get it.
[00:31:43] I'll elaborate. You seem to be under the impression that I severed our friendship and stopped talking to you because I disagree with your politics, because you supported and voted for Trump.
[00:31:55] It's significantly deeper than that and your having voted for Trump was a symptom, not the problem. We've talked. We've had long conversations about things like the criminal justice system treating people of color worse than white people. We've talked about how I don't feel safe in my own country as a person of color, because I fear that one day, I could lose my life for looking suspicious, for fitting a description. And yet you didn't get why it would disturb me that Colin Kaepernick taking a knee offended you. It shook me when you said you would prefer Trump's sexism to having Hillary because you want to save on your taxes. It was deeper than politics, because we talked about all these things, about how they personally affect me. It's as if after knowing me for years, you didn't value my life."
[00:33:02] I really appreciate hearing your stories. Call me at 949-522-5587 to share your story. That's 949-522-5587. Leave a voicemail. You don't have to use your name if you don't want to. And you might hear your message in a future episode and you can always find us on social media. We're on Facebook and Twitter @closershow. Thank you so much to those of you who've called already. This is really one of my favorite things about doing this show.
[00:33:36] This is Closer Than They Appear from Jetty Studios. You're subscribed, right? It's free, wherever you get your podcasts and while you're at it, why not write a review? It will help other people find the show and you can always find links to episodes and full transcripts on our website, closerthantheyappear.fm. This episode was field produced by Lacey Roberts. 

Our senior producer is Casey Miner and our editor is Leila Day. Graelyn Brashear and Paulana Lamonier run our social media and our associate producer Meradith Hoddinott. Our show was engineered by Mark Behm with mixing and sound design by Ian Coss. Music is by Antique Naked Soul. You can hear more of them at Antique-Music.com. Megan Jones runs our podcast operations and Jessica Wang is our senior video producer. Special thanks to Shamrace’s brother, Jason Mims, who helped us get in touch. Jetty's executive producer is Julie Caine and the general manager Kaizar Campwala. Until next week, thanks for listening.