“Tools are behind ya, ma’am,” he said, as he slid them under the bus driver’s seat. “Morning everyone.”
On any other mode of public transportation, a passenger carrying sharp blades might be cause for alarm. On this city bus in Anniston, however, the sight of Thomes Taul’s gardening shears is a familiar one.
Taul, 48, rides the bus every day in search of work.
“Any type of work,” he said, as he glanced out the window. “Riding the bus looking is better than sitting around waiting. Even a part-time job would be better than walking around with hedge clippers.”
On a good day, he said, he can make an average of $50, washing cars, trimming bushes, anything someone will pay him to do. The work doesn’t bother him, but sometimes, his eyesight does. Taul has only one eye. On July 1, 1990, he was shot 12 times by a man who had been flirting with his wife, he said.
He stood up for his family that day, he said. Today, for as long as he can, he said, he will continue to use his two hands to help support his family.
Back home, he has eight mouths to feed. He cares for his children, ranging in age from 2 to 18, on his own. He lost his wife to cancer two years ago.
“It had poisoned her body,” said Taul, running his rough, calloused hands over his chest. “She was a working lady, worked as a cook at the Eastside Head Start Center. Worked hard every day of her life, but they caught it too late.”
Although Taul and his wife had been separated for three years, he said he maintained a strong relationship with her and their children. He lived in Detroit up until four years ago, when his mother’s death brought him back home to Talladega.
“When I lost my mother and my wife, there was no sense leaving the area. Everything I had was here; my children are here,” he said.
The cost of living was also a strong factor in his decision to stay. He rents a three-bedroom house that he shares with his eight children for $300 a month. Because his source of income is relatively unstable — some days he walks around for hours and makes nothing — three of his children help him out with the bills. One of his sons works at the local Burger King. His twin girls work at Shoney’s.
“I don’t want to be rich,” Taul said. “I just want to be comfortable, to take care of my family.”
The complications from his multiple gunshot wounds have left him scarred, in pain and dependent on several medications, all of which are paid for by Medicaid.
“I’ve really got nothing to smile about,” Taul said, but a smile spread across his face when he talked about the work he does, about how the neighborhood kids recognize him on his daily rounds.
“They run up and tell their mamas ‘the lawnmower man’s here!’ That’s their nickname for me,” he said. “I’m just living day-by-day.”
Marie Corvett, a 19-year veteran driver for the public transportation system, said bus riders like Taul are a familiar sight.
“A good many of them ride in search of jobs,” she said.
On the bus, however, statistics are never discussed. The hour-long ride on the West Route, on small, 16-passenger buses, fosters a sense of familiarity and camaraderie. Passengers share stories about their lives, their hardships and their happiness.
“I don’t know all of their names,” said Corvett, “but I know their faces.”
Jimmy Wilson, 48, was along for a similar ride.
“I wake up every day at 4:30 a.m.,” he said. “I always have to find something to do.”
The plan for the day was to search for a job. Wilson, a one-time roofer, was headed to a potential job interview in the heating and cooling field. He had to give up more labor-intensive work after he suffered a series of heart attacks.
“I had my first heart attack in 1996,” he said. “I should have given up roofing then, but I didn’t. I’ve had three more heart attacks since then; now I have six stents in my heart.”
Wilson is filing for disability. The process has taken several years, he said, and he’s not sure if he will ever see payment.
“Alabama is so far behind the times we won’t ever catch up,” he said.
While he was sharing his story, a voice from the back of the bus perked up.
“You won’t ever see a penny,” said an older gentleman. “I tried for years. Never did me any good.”
In the meantime, Wilson said he relies on Medicaid to help pay his medical bills.
Taul and Wilson are both nearly 50 years old. They agree they can’t continue taking on labor-related jobs much longer.
“My bones hurt, my joints hurt,” Taul said. “I can’t keep doing this, but it’s hard to find another type of job. I can’t drive and I can’t ride a bicycle because I have balance problems.”
For now, the bus will have to do.