Breaking Joplin: Portrait of Tom Rogers

“I’m not telling you it wasn’t a difficult road. It was a very difficult road because I burnt a lot of bridges. I had stolen from people. My gambling addiction was out of control. I had bled my parents dry of money. The whole thing was a train wreck.”

Tom Rogers is a tall, sturdy man. Dressed in black shoes, a blue striped dress shirt, and black slacks, Tom Rogers greets me in a thunderous voice and puts a strong handshake into my palm. Like the unwavering confidence of a salesman, Tom Rogers looks as though he could never break.

But the truth is that Tom Rogers lives in a world where the past is not just broken, it is shattered, and yet the Missouri man somehow manages to keep his present – and the present of others – full of life.

That is, after all, his profession.

During the interview, Tom Rogers crosses his legs and rests his hands on his knees. He appears calm and collected. He doesn’t talk with his hands. His face is serious and controlled. Well kept, his voice is relaxed even though there’s something of a fiery growl that rears its head almost as if the man possesses a demon that wants to get out.

The Watered Gardens Gospel Mission sits behind Joplin’s main street. It is housed in what looks like a former brick industrial building. Outside, in the parking lot, there are members of the mission lazing about. Some look at me, some don’t. Some are smoking Pall Mall cigarettes and laughing like cuckoos.

Then one calls out to me, “Hey! It’s Elvis Presley!” It’s a sure gesture to my slick style hair cut. Unfortunately, he is wrong. Elvis is dead. The faces in the parking lot appear bent, twisted, and deflated. These could be the saddest faces in America.

There’s little anger in them. No palpable aggression. Instead, I see hopelessness. A magnificent loss.

 

The sadness that wells up around the mission is a sadness that Tom Rogers knows cold. In fact, defeating hopelessness is his mission. And at his best, Tom Rogers transforms the deflated faces I see in the parking lot into people who feel and want to be alive – people with purpose.

 

Tom Rogers describes himself as a life coach. “Some describe what I do as Evangelism,” he says.

 

But Tom Rogers says that he is not so keen on the sort of religion practiced by Joplin’s Evangelical mega-churches. Instead, he has formulated his own sort of spiritual healing. After defeating his own personal history of brokenness borne out of drug and alcohol abuse (including a near-death experience), Tom Rogers dedicates his time at the mission to repairing the broken lives of others.

“I was born here in Joplin… at the hospital that was destroyed in the tornado. I grew up with an alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother. And only through a searching and fearless, moral inventory that I did over the last couple years did I really discover where I had to make a decision that I would have to be a person that had to shelter himself and to create a new personality and to find the safest route through life without really expressing who I really was.

When you grow up in a non-affectionate home where there’s not a hug, a kiss, you try to help yourself with that a little bit. You give yourself some atta-boys. You seek approval from people in destructive ways. You seek approval. Even to this day I catch myself seeking approval from people and seeking attention. I grew up a confused child.”

 

Tom Rogers says he knows the worst in people and the best in people. It’s difficult not to believe him.

When a tornado ripped through Joplin in May of 2011, it decimated one third of the city and left one hundred people dead. Tom Rogers lost his house, his car and all of his personal belongings. Fortunately, he kept his life. And what he experienced with that life was the aftermath of a horrific natural disaster, and though it might have seemed peculiar on the surface, Tom Rogers knew exactly what was poisoning Joplin.

It was the same thing that had poisoned him.

“We have a lot of people here who are transient,” explains Tom Rogers. “So a lot of folks came to town because they felt led to come and help clean up. It was a new start for them. Since Joplin was devastated they’d be able to come and blend in – knowing that so many people would displaced. I think there was a natural gravitation to come here and be involved in helping clean up – to make themselves part of the community.

That’s one thing that attracted a lot of people – these guys knew there would be a lot of work, a lot of clean up, a lot of work that wouldn’t require someone to look at their past. They had an opportunity to have a fresh start.

One thing that always comes with catastrophe and Joplin’s type of tragedy is unity. You never create any greater unity than with tragedy and catastrophe.

So you see a new spirit in town. I see the best of people, but I also see the worst in people. And I see people who have probably been in the position that I was in my past: how can I take advantage of this situation, how can I profit from this situation?” he explains.

 

Inside the mission, dinner is about to finish. There is a cluttered kitchen where three chefs busily push food onto a small counter.  Some mission guests poke around at their plates. The food is stacked on green plastic hospital plates. Most people eat alone. Hardly anyone speaks. The faces I see are as plain and bland as the food. Lining the kitchen wall there are glass panels where short success stories about mission members are neatly taped up in a line.

One story is about man who fought a methamphetamine addiction, how he needed to change and how he did, and how now he drives a rig all over America for a national trucking company. It is told using the word “I.” I search for a name. There is none.

Now, after all the addiction and the pain, after the desperation and the sadness, after the brokenness, this truck driver is healed. Some, it seems, get to leave the mission and the sadness of Joplin behind. Some get to rejuvenate their American road.

Fortunately the repaired truck driver has Tom Roger’s gospel to show him the way.

May 2012

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Medellín-based Espacio Asks for Angels, Challenges Too

Fifteen years ago, Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, resembled a diabolical sort of place. Business was corrupt. Violence was heavy. For Conrad Egusa, an entrepreneur who has practiced success in the Silicon Valley and in New York, Medellín might have been the last place on earth where he would choose to spawn his latest idea – a start-up incubator. But instead, Egusa thinks Medellín is ideal.

Along with his local partner, Edinson Alberto Arrieta Aguas, the two are hopeful about Medellín, which is the city they chose to cradle their recently launched Espacio, a start-up incubator that offers a community-driven brand of marketing, technology, and PR support to a mix of Colombian and foreign entrepreneurs. According to TechCrunch Espacio is backed by .CO, a digital enterprise web domain, and the Founder Institute.

“Medellin is unlike any other city I have been to, and the only region I can compare it to is Silicon Valley. When I arrived in the city, the more I became involved in the entrepreneurial scene here, the more I learned about the great government initiatives (from Ruta N, iNNpulsa), and the active startup scene,” Egusa told Pulso Social.

But if Espacio wants Medellín to be the next Silicon Valley, it faces some stiff competition for the title. Chile’s government-backed Start-UpChile aims to have 1,000 fledgling firms and has already established itself. And imitating the pearl of Chile’s strategy, Brazil also wants to lift prohibitive immigration laws that will make its cities more attractive to foreigners for testing their ideas in institutes like Rio’s 21212 Digial Accelerator.

Medellin And regional competition isn’t the only challenge. What Espacio has to figure out is how to lure Angel Investors – a hot matter The Economist talks about in its recent article about Latin America’s entrepreneurial climate. The final key that successful tech entrepreneurs need for solving the start-up labyrinth is private venture capital for investment in their projects. According to The Economist, even Rio and Santiago see difficulty luring angel money away from America’s innovation hubs in Silicon Valley and New York.

Egusa, however, sees the challenge from a different perspective. He says that what he perceives to be one of the most fundamental challenges is a mere lack of success stories in Colombia and even greater Latin America.

“Latin America needs to have a number of entrepreneurial success stories, which will not only catch the eye of foreign venture capitalists, but will also serve as inspiration to the next generation of entrepreneurs,” said Egusa, in an interview with PulsoSocial.

Indeed, he has now made himself into something of a ventriloquist with the power to tell those stories. And if he and Espacio don’t tell success, Medellín might watch the Angels fly right on by.

Owning Oklahoma: Portrait of Greg Griffith

The sting of manure is strong.

The only noise I hear is the crunching of tires against earth and the rattle of metal against metal. Soon the clanging and clattering that resounds through an open lot filled with rows of tired, mud-stained trucks surrounds me. Their carriages are vacant, but the sting of the manure tells me that cattle were here. As I step out of my car, my shoes crunch against hard dirt.

A woman in the Stockman Commission Company office tells me where to go. She tells me to follow the hallway to the end, then take a right. Go to the final door. Then exit. The stockyards are across the lot. You’ll need to take the catwalk.

 

“Look for the auction house,” she says, “…just follow the smell.”

 

She says it in that bumpy deep-in-the-middle-of-American-heartland accent. I am following a scent. I am finding the auction house.

 

The auction house is at the center of a maze of cattle and people and fences and horses and mooing and manure, making up an industry that marks the heart of America – livestock. Oklahoma City’s stockyards and auction houses are the places where thousands of head of cattle are bought and sold by ranchers from all around the Great Plains every day.

The smell of manure is stronger now, but not as sharp, as I pound my boots up the steps that carry me to the top of the catwalk. I reach the top. In front of me what spreads out in every direction is a labyrinth of bobbing-up-and-down cowboy hats, gates and pens and rusty steel cages, and three or four galloping mahogany-red horses circling majestically around the static of what must be thousands of mooing heads.

I walk the catwalk.

Greg Griffith, I am told, is somewhere inside the brick building, an auction house that towers above the stockyard, where a fast talking man rambles prices to an audience of straight-faced ranchers in one of Oklahoma’s largest cattle markets.

Greg Griffith, I am told, owns the show. And boy is it a show indeed.

Finally I find the auction house. Greg Griffith has explained to me that he will be the only one in the auction house, rambling away from his post at the auction stage, which sits high above the pen. He says it will be easy to spot him. He has told me it will be easy to know which one he is because he will be the only one who wears a cowboy hat.

I enter. What feels like one hundred cowboy hat brims shift their shadowy gazes lazily toward me.

 

“My first job was working here at The Oklahoma City Stockyards. My grandfather owned a commission company here. But back then it was a four-day sale and that was before they had automatic waters and concrete water troughs. And there were always a lot of kids who worked here. Most of them – their fathers worked here. And our job was to water the cattle all day long… I started in 1974.”

 

Speaking in a genial drone Greg Griffith explains how he earned a degree in Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and took a job with Oscar Mayer foods company in Sherman, Texas, right after college. But he quickly learned that factory work wasn’t for him, so he came back to Apache, Oklahoma and entered auctioneering school.

For twenty years using that hard, melodic ramble that Oklahoma owns has been the profession of Greg Griffith.

 

“Well, you know I always had a pretty good voice. The pay was always pretty good and it’s a pretty competitive, intense-type job, and it fit my personality.”

I enter the auction and sit down.

Almost everyone wears a cowboy hat and several fellows have kicked up their legs, put them across one another, and rest two muddy boots on the paint-chipped railings in front of them. Some younger hands wear baseball caps and sneakers. It is as if the wide brimmed hats and heavy leather boots are a mark of status and heightened respect.  The distracted faces remain for only a second as the whirring din of the rambling stereo voice of the auctioneer sucks their focus back into the market.

 

A bell rings. And then the massive beasts come rumbling into a tight space where cowboys swat the cattle hides with a wire rod. The auctioneer begins to ramble hard. Next to me an old man with a trimmed white beard and a modest hat absorbs respectful handshakes from passers-by in his thick, meaty palms. One after the other the hands come swooping in for a hard shake. There is a distinct hierarchy among the members of the audience. Some are young and watch and listen. The young ones are quiet. Their faces look on, following the scribbling of numbers and notes on worn out notepads clutched in the hands of older, more seasoned boots and hats.

Greg Griffith is more than just an auctioneer now. He has retired his fast rambling voice and instead moved on to other, more entrepreneurial adventures.

“We operate Stockman’s commission company here in Oklahoma City. We also operate Apache auction market in Apache Oklahoma. And then we have a video company where we sell cattle over the Internet. So we have film representatives that go out and film people’s cattle at their ranch. And then they email the films to us and we write out all the parameters and all the delivery conditions, and when we deliver, what they will weigh, and then we auctioneer them live over the Internet on Wednesday.”

 

Mr. Griffith’s company deals business with ranchers from all over the Great Plain states.

Out on the catwalk, I meet a man clad in a bright red prairie shirt. It is pleated and clean. He wears an austere cowboy hat, but on his feet there are extravagant red cowboy boots. The man comes from a ranch 50 miles away from Oklahoma City to buy and sell at Greg Griffith’s auctions.

“We’ll see how the prices are today,” he grunts. The red prairie shirt seems tough to satisfy.

Greg agrees. Finding satisfaction in his clients is not only hard work – it is a precarious business.

“There in about 10 minutes we sold 404 head of cattle that probably averaged around $1,000 dollars a head,” he says, referring to the last ten minutes of rambling that I fail to comprehend, “… and so that’s $404,000 dollars of cattle that we probably did in under 10 minutes…. And well, you know, these people have bank loans and operating expenses and household expenses…”

“And you’re the one representing their livelihood, right?” I ask.

“Exactly,” he says serious as stone.

 

The way Greg thinks about his hard work is that his success depends not so much on his skills, but on how much stress he can take on.

 

“As you get older, the more you handle people and the more stress you can manage, the more profitable your work is to you.”

 

Below the auctioneer’s stage, there is a pit of dirt where the drafts of cattle that come thundering into the ring are guarded off from the cowboys by two narrow spaces separated from the ring by a worn out metal fence. One young cowboy in a mud-colored plaid shirt uses a long rod to swat the cattle as they come pounding across the dirt.

He looks scared, timid and fresh. No more than fourteen years old.

Later, on the catwalk I see the young boy. Hanging out from a straight, tight-lipped face a cigarette is burning. He breathes it in hard. The kid is staring across the maze of pens and cattle and cowboys, out toward two lone skyscrapers that poke up from the middle of downtown Oklahoma City. You can barely seem them behind the gray. The young boy has dirt on his hands and under his nails. His blue jeans are stained. He doesn’t look me in the eye. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s intimidated or tired. Whatever he is, the kid looks worn out. And this is only 14 years in.

In Oklahoma’s stockyards, it seems that just plain growing up can be hard work.

“The toughest part,” says Greg Griffith, reflecting on how he started out, “is finding out how terrible you really are. How intimidated you are by what you’re trying to do.”

I start to pity the boy a bit, watching him smoke hard, covered in dirt.

I start to pity him for the mindless swatting of manure-crusted cattle that make up the boy’s existence down there in the cattle pen. I pity him for the ramble that he does not yet comprehend.

And then I halt myself, remembering something Greg Griffith said just moments ago inside the auction house.

“Work’s not the enemy,” he said matter-of-factly.

 

I look the young kid up and down again.

Then again maybe he’s not worn out at all. Maybe he’s just getting hard. Maybe the sort of boring pain that comes hand in hand with the hard work that we put ourselves through is the way we appreciate our successes. Maybe this is just simply what it looks like to grow up in the heart of America. Maybe this young cowhand is just another young Greg Griffith, breathing it all in, getting used to the sting of manure, getting used to the mundane swatting of hides, and trying to understand the incomprehensible ramble that comes from underneath the shadowy brims of older hats – maybe this is just a young boy growing accustomed to the stink and the ramble and the gray and the fragile patience and determination to palate it without quitting early.

Breathing it all in.

Indeed, there might be a day when the young boy needs to breath in deep and ramble out every bit of what he possibly can.

As I stomp across the creaky wood boards of the catwalk, the sounds of cattle mooing fall in on each other and become a low moan, but there’s something about the sound that comes from the yard that still feels clear and honest and strong – it’s the sound of the auctioneer’s voice rambling on.

May, 2012