Neighbors say he's a nuisance and some even fear him, but Jack Swandol argues he's got every right to hang around two Fan garages.
If Jack Swandol looks more agitated than usual it's because he is.
And the "Renter's Alley" article that appeared in the July 4 issue of Style Weekly, he says, has something to do with it. More people, he says, are poking around his alley to spy on him. But what needles him most is that four leads on available garage space in the Fan have been shot down by landlords who say they've heard about Swandol and won't rent to him without an address and phone number.
"I've got them both," says Swandol irritably. "I just can't give them out." He shared his whereabouts once with police and, he says, that night he and his wife were kicked out of a friend's house.
His current landlords, a North Side couple, say he always pays rent on time, but they likely will refuse to renew Swandol's lease because of endless neighborhood complaints. In two months, the Swandols and all their belongings could be out on the streets.
It's not soon enough for some Fan neighbors. They say Swandol is a convicted criminal and a clever schemer prepared to do anything to intimidate them. But their biggest concern is what they see as the city's refusal to force Swandol, 49, and his wife, Betty, 61, out of two garages they rent in an alley off Strawberry Street. Residents nearby say the Swandols sleep there. "Yes, I had a bed back there," Swandol says. "But no, I wasn't sleeping in there."
So far, there has been little proof to convince the city that a code or zoning law is being broken. It's become a volatile situation in which neither side seems willing to budge.
"Oh sure, they're still there," says Dr. Edward Peeples, a Fan resident so frustrated he says he's tempted to tell the city he wants his tax money back. "We're not a bunch of whining neighbors," he explains citing a letter to Style's editor in response to the article. "This is such a sad, sorry situation. It just makes me sick."
But it's Swandol who says he can't sleep at night. He has piercing blue eyes and a stormy face. He can make it impossible for you to find him. It's amazing the amount of ground he covers just walking. And when you do finally catch him, he sizes you up like the metals he polishes guessing what you could be worth to him.
A very private yet irascible man, Swandol now wants to set the record straight even if there's no hope for a peaceable solution. He's tired of rumors circulating among neighbors about a past he's had to constantly guard and revisit with each shuffle of life. Still, in an instant, an arbitrary comment or action that others would dismiss triggers a change in Swandol that takes him from sympathetic to vengeful in seconds.
It's a fluke Swandol ended up in Richmond. "I served five years flat," he says about time he spent 20 years ago in Pennsylvania's Rockview Prison. The charge: felony assault. Upon his release, Swandol decided to visit an aunt in North Carolina and start a new life there, then send for Betty, who was in Pennsylvania. He ended up in Richmond, he says, off Brook Road living in some weeds with a nasty case of poison ivy. He never left and Betty soon followed.
"We lived on the streets for a while and under the 2nd Street Bridge," says Swandol.
Eventually, painting jobs helped earn him enough money to rent an apartment on the Boulevard. Apart from Betty's disability check the Swandols insist they don't need or want public assistance.
"I'm a very good painter," Swandol says. "I'm one of the best in the city. That should show you how arrogant I am," he says with an almost eerie, flaunting laugh, like that of an old and insufferable rock star. But even with all the painting gear he's accumulated - drop cloths, ladders, rollers, brushes - it hasn't been enough to land him a full-time job. "The reason I don't have a full-time job is because I don't have transportation," he says, ego stripped. He says he never learned to ride a bike.
Swandol's had his share of trouble here, and he concedes he can become volatile if provoked. But he says it's no reason for people to fear him.
In November 1996 when Swandol and his wife were living on the Boulevard, Swandol got into an argument with a man who accused Swandol of showing his son "dirty" magazines. Later that day Swandol says the man "told police I took a claw hammer and hit him three times in the ribs."
Swandol, who acknowledges the magazines but says he didn't commit the attack, pleaded guilty to malicious wounding, a conviction that jumped from a Class 6 to a Class 2 misdemeanor. He was sentenced to five years probation and served 78 days in the Richmond City Jail.
But Swandol says that stint was a raw deal, not like the time spent in Rockview that caused him to do some real soul searching.
"I don't smoke and I don't drink," Swandol says. "I used to drink and I'd beat up my ex-wife. I'd wake up the next day and be sick to my stomach seeing what I'd done. When I was in prison I swore I'd never get drunk again." He says he hasn't had more than a can of beer since his release in 1985. Ninety-three warm and unopened cans are stacked in his garage and he can't remember the last time one was emptied.
Swandol's haggardly thin face reveals a kind of frozen apprehension as if caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. It seems his whole world is about to explode. It's a world of discarded clothes, appliances, metals, paint-spattered ladders and plastic-wrapped stuffed animals in all shapes and sizes. It's a world that values white elephants and second chances. It's also a world that will require considerable downsizing if he doesn't find another garage, and soon.
In the 10 months since the Swandols started renting the garages, they've tried to keep to themselves. But it's hard to hide 25 ladders, the occasional sink and car batteries. Even when the garages are closed and locked and the Swandols are away, their "recycling" business often is evidenced by wet clothes drying over a neighbor's Supercan.
"This is my territory. I've been in every can from downtown to Henrico," says Swandol. His long hands point to a heap that includes a cast iron sink, air-conditioner cores, copper cable, aluminum, lead pipes you name it, Swandol's got it. He'll nearly break his back to wring out dollars where few would bother. The next day he planned to make another 3-mile trek on foot to Richmond Recycling hauling a shopping cart loaded with cast iron sinks. Close to 300 pounds will bring him a little less than $10.
In a black three-ring binder he accounts for every metal's daily returns from the recycling center that gives him cash. Carefully he adds in year-to-date totals. So far, aluminum alone has fetched $579.60.
While neighbors say they want Swandol out of their neighborhood, Swandol says he and his wife just want to be left alone by neighbors. "They have phones, jobs, cars, money. All I do is take care of stuff, clean it up and give it up. If there's any harm in that, then something's
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.