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His life: one step forward and two steps back

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MELONE
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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


Chuck Harrington stands on the loading dock of the St. Petersburg bindery where he works. He wears a sleeveless white T-shirt that shows off his hard arms. His face is taut, his belly flat. Big jeans, Calvin Kleins, hang from his narrow waist. Only his shoes give Chuck away.

His black suede boots, faded and worn, were hand-me-downs from a buddy.

If you start life with lots of choices and money, and screw up, you can get back on your feet. Just ask Michael Milken.

But if you were born into circumstances where choices were few, and made bad choices on your own, you go into free fall. Just ask Chuck Harrington.

These were the circumstances that limited his choices. He was born black and poor. He has a GED. His job pays $7 an hour. He is 35 years old.

These were the choices he made, not wise ones. He fathered four children by three women and owes them thousands in child support. No lie. About $50,000.

I'm not asking you to feel sorry for him. I am asking you to see the world from his end of the telescope, where despair is as real as the trees, and where it looks as if The System goes out of its way to keep him stuck.

He is so behind in child support, the state once threw him in jail for a month for not paying. What good did that do? He couldn't work and fell further behind.

His driver's license was taken away. His work opportunities were suddenly limited to the places he could get to easily on a bus.

He has worked at fast-food restaurants and factories, but the job that lights up his eyes was the one with Wells Fargo. He was a courier, a man with a gun, a bulletproof vest and responsibility.

One night in 1991 after work, the cops stopped him and a friend near Harrington's home in Roser Park. Got them out of their car. There had been a report of shots fired. People came out of their houses. Harrington was arrested for obstructing the police.

He lost his job, his car, his apartment. The case lingered four months before Harrington was acquitted. He got his job back but had to quit when Wells Fargo left town. He didn't have a car to get him to the company's Tampa office.

Maybe that's what did it. Maybe it was the anger building at the women he'd known, the financial fix he was in. Maybe it was watching his friends make good money selling crack. "We're gonna make you sell dope," they told him. "You ain't gonna make me do nothing!" he told them. "I'll die first."

He went from job to job. Got laid off. Mixed it up with the boss. Or got fired as soon as the bus didn't run on time, or he had to skip a day because he had a child support hearing.

I cannot tell for sure whether he didn't have the money or didn't want to pay. When he did pay, he had peanuts left: "I'd get paychecks for $11, another for $92, and once I got a check with two zeroes in it."

He used to sit alone with the .32-caliber semiautomatic he'd bought because not to have it, where he lived, was lunacy. "There were times I would pick up the gun, and stick it at my head or stick it in my mouth . . . I'd be crying and screaming and mad at the world."

He said God got him out of his despair. Maybe that's so. Now he's in a program for parents far behind on their child support. He has a counselor who rides him every week to get him on track, to stop feeling sorry for himself, and to get that gorilla of a child support bill reduced to the size of a chimp.

At home, Chuck has a stapled collection of papers, thick as a phone book, that he has to fill out to get his child support reduced. Not even his counselor can help him with the paperwork. Chuck has to get himself to another agency, where lawyers will help for free.

Chuck Harrington swears his despair is gone. He is even a block captain for his neighborhood crime watch. He has had that job at the bindery for a month. He has only the bus to take him to and fro. He has no margin for error.

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