Editor’s Note: The “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on locals we all wish we knew more about! La Jolla Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (858) 875-5950.
Customers come to J.J. Smith’s rePlanet recycling station with empty cans and bottles and almost always receive smiles, in addition to deposits, in return. The Lemon Grove resident serves as the de-facto life coach for dozens of La Jollans every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday — dispensing advice and cracking jokes. You can smell his big heart a mile away from the 7607 Fay Ave. recycling center behind Vons where he tirelessly works.
Smith, 27, wants to become a high-school guidance counselor, so this job is his ideal internship in social work. Next semester, he plans to re-start college at Grossmont, where he’ll major in psychology.
Q: Why do you want to become a guidance counselor?
A: I went through some hard times, hanging out with some bad kids, and there was a counselor at Kearny High School who turned my life around. He asked if I knew the percentage of graduations every year of African-Americans. I didn’t. He asked if I knew the death rates of African-Americans every year. I didn’t. He gave me the numbers. They were staggering. He told me: ‘Take your ass to class and leave that stuff alone. And don’t you have a football game later? Your grades are going to get you kicked off.’ And I loved football. So after that, I just stopped. I stopped and went positive. And I was done with high school when I was a junior because I had so many credits. So I figure, if I can pay that back, what’s wrong with that?
Q: How did you develop such a personal relationship with your recycling customers?
A: People ask me questions, I make sure I answer to the best of my knowledge. And when they get a little more personal, I’ll talk to them. When they come here, I’m playing music sometimes. They’ll come to me and let me know their problems, and I do care. I’m talking to them, trying to make them happy. When it’s raining, it’s raining on all of us. When it’s hot as hell, they’re burning up along with me. I have so many people who share stories. I wish I can help in other ways, but I’m making 20 dollars an hour.
Q: People who recycle come from all walks of life, but you do see a lot of homeless people. Does it ever make you sad or hopeless?
A: Ninety-nine percent of our customers are people who are less fortunate than us. Everybody has a different story, but their outcome is the same — they made a mistake somewhere along the way and they tell me about it. I ask them how they became like this and what’s next. And I understand their answers, because I grew up in poverty — four kids in a one-bedroom house. My mom was never home and I don’t remember having my father around most of the time, so I learned how to be a man in my own way. I never forgot where I came from. And that’s pretty much the wire that loops it all together. Because when I see someone struggling and I see how they look and how they’re behaving, I think, that could have been me.
Q: Do you ever feel like you’re getting too personal?
A: Sometimes, when I hear someone say something that just bugs me in general, I’ll start talking to them and letting them know. I’ll step back maybe the next day and go, ‘Why the heck did I say that?’ But is the person happier? Usually, so, good! No one can tell me that helping people is bad.
Q: What advice do you have for all of us for deriving more enjoyment from our jobs?
A: Well, think about if you didn’t have it. This job that I have here is a great job. It has brought many wonderful people to me. I’m making minimum wage, but I’m happy because we’re helping people. When I was growing up, my grandfather always took me to recycle. Now, I’m working at the same company that my grandpa used to always take me to and say, “Don’t throw your recycling on the ground.”
Q: What motivates your positive attitude?
A: I do everything in the name of trying to be right. You can’t be perfect, but you can try.