Starting From Scratch At 71: One Man’s Plan To Reach Financial Independence, One Trade At a Time

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by Nicholas Johnson

Jim Todd, 71, and his wife Karen, 63, sit side-by-side in computer chairs, each roaming the Internet on their respective computers. Karen sits back as she picks up a lit Swisher Sweets cigar from the ashtray on her desk and takes a drag – it’s the third one she’s had today. Jim lights up as well and the 10-foot by 10-foot room fills with smoke, illuminated by dim sun rays pouring in from between the blinds that cover the room’s only window.

The grey-haired couple spends most days right here – in a cluttered, cramped, ground-floor apartment on the south end of White Center, Wash. They call it home, smoke-stained walls and all. And, for the past month, Jim’s nephew Vern and his wife Melissa have called the living room home. They moved in after losing their fifth-wheel trailer.

Two small dogs and a parrot named “Patty Bird” also call the apartment home. Patty Bird sits perched in a cage in the corner of the room, bird seed spilling out onto the floor. Boxes, clothes, pairs of shoes and other odds and ends fill about half the room, leaving little space to walk. When Jim married Karen 30 years ago, the two put their combined belongings into storage. But, with fewer dollars to dedicate toward storage rent, those belongings found their way into the apartment they’ve shared for the past 12 years.

Wearing dirt-smudged jeans and a blue T-shirt that reads “D.A.R.E. DASH” in bold, red letters, Jim fidgets with the hearing aid in his right ear. He touches his chin for a moment – covered in white stubbles of hair – and as he does, his wedding band catches the light. He wears it proudly, and says it was long in God’s plans that he and Karen would be together. Before Karen, Jim had been married for more than 17 years until his wife suffered a heart attack while grocery shopping.

“It was like God said, ‘I’ve given you this woman for so many years, but this woman is sitting over here waiting to come in’,” he says slowly and quietly. “It was all made before we ever got here. It was all set up.”

Although these two have their problems – especially since Jim has been out of work – they’ve never stopped looking for ways to pick themselves up. Jim has a plan, but first he needs $6,000 in start-up money. He dreams of owning and operating a cotton candy machine – in fact, he’s got it all picked out. Someday, he’d like to sell cotton candy to children at Seahurst Park; but for now, he’s just concerned about getting on his feet.

“I’m just trying to get ahead,” Jim says. “I don’t want to be a burden on society. I want to be my own support.”

Karen agrees.

“We’d all like something better than what we have,” she says. “Some people are satisfied just to be somewhere and stay there. If you have any drive at all you want to better yourself, you want to do something else. You want to progress a little bit; you don’t want to just stay where you’re at. You don’t want to get into a rut and stay there.”

Food stamps and stinky ears
Currently living off of monthly Social Security checks and food stamps, the Todd’s struggle to afford food and rarely leave their room. The two receive $92 in food stamps each month from the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

“At $92, we can go ten days between us spending $9 a day for us to eat on,” Jim says, indicating that he’s done the math. “And the rest of the month we’re going to starve.”

Social Security pays Jim $881 a month, half of which goes toward rent, which is reduced with the help of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, otherwise known as Section 8. With Karen’s $403 Social Security check and what remains of his, Jim pays the utility bill and other expenses throughout each month.

Income, however, is not their only problem.

At 58, Jim was working in security. That’s when he began to develop an ear infection. He eventually lost 93 percent of his hearing in the left ear and 86 percent in the right. As a result he lost his job, and his ear infection remained.

“They’re always running and draining and stinking and whatever,” he says.

Jim’s doctor recommended hearing aids for both ears, but DSHS would only cover the cost of one hearing aid – for his better ear.

More recently, Jim says he has a cataract in his eye that will need operation soon.

Getting older and getting rejected
For the next few years Jim worked as a Union Pacific Railroad crew hauler between Seattle and Portland. He’d drive out to Chehalis or Cosmopolis or any other city along the tracks to pick up Union Pacific Railroad crews when their shifts ended. Labor laws stipulate that railroad crews work an eight-hour shift – no shorter, no longer – and often these crews’ shifts end miles away from home.

When he lost that job, finding another became harder than he could’ve imagined.

“I have worked and supported my family,” he says in his deep, scratchy voice. “But in the past couple of years it has all been on a downhill slide. As I get older I am finding it harder to find a job. People don’t tell me they won’t hire me because I’m old, but that’s how it is.”

He knows his hearing makes job interviews a hassle, and he doesn’t blame the interviewer when he never receives a call back. He says, “It’s not their fault.”

For nearly ten years Jim has been out of work, and he absolutely hates it.

“I want to get up and do something,” he says as his voice breaks and a tear forms in the corner of his eye. “I’m tired of not being out working and supporting my family and bringing stuff in. I’m tired of my wife having to sit around 24 hours a day and not being able to go out and do anything or spend any money or have any freedom. And I want to do it myself. I don’t know where else to go.”

Trying something new
Over the last few years, Jim has sat at Seahurst Park in Burien selling photos he takes while at the beach. Jim and Karen collaborate on greeting cards – self-written, self-printed, self-folded and self-sold – which they call “off the wall” because of their quirky humor. Jim has even sought small grants, but he gave up when he realized most are aimed at women and minority groups.

With a room full of stuff and a keyboard at his fingertips, Jim has tried selling such things as a pair of CB radios on Craigslist. He wasn’t having much luck, so he figured if no one was interested in paying for what he had to offer, he might try a new route.

After seeing a video on ABC’s news website about a 26-year-old Canadian man who traded one red paper clip for a house in Kipling, Saskatchewan about four years earlier, Jim decided he may as well try “trading up,” too.

Kyle MacDonald traveled the country, checking his e-mail and making trades as he went. After 14 trades, MacDonald had a house – and an adventure to share with the world. Of course he wrote a book, and now appears on talk shows and gives motivational speeches.

In July of this year a 17-year-old California high school student managed to trade his old cell phone for a 2000 Porsche Boxster S, a process that took two years and 14 trades. When questioned by his friends, he said such successful bartering takes time and patience.

Surely, stories of successful Craigslist bartering have prompted many to take the first step: posting a paperclip, an old cell phone or, in Jim’s case, four paper binders:

But when Jim took that first step on Sept. 24, it didn’t take long for an unknown person to flag his post and send a hate-filled e-mail saying, “just because one guy did it with a paper clip, you think you can do it?”

“I wasn’t trying to defraud anybody,” he says. “It’s not like I was offering nothing. I don’t know what appeals to you and you don’t know what appeals to me, so how do I know what might appeal to somebody else?”

Eventually he stopped reposting the paper binders, mostly due to continued harassment from the unknown flagger. But on Oct. 19, Jim posted a new item: a Mini Maglite flashlight (click here to see the ad):

Independent all his life
Although the same person flagged it once again, Jim reposted the flashlight and his post has remained untouched since. Jim says he feels the anonymous flagger thinks he is looking for a free ride, an easy way out.

“If there’s one thing I hate it’s somebody thinking I’m going to have to be dependent on them,” he says. “I don’t want to be dependent. I’ve been independent pretty much all my life.”

Jim grew up in Alexandria, Va. His father died when Jim was eight years old, leaving him to care for his three-year-old sister. By the time Jim was 13 years old he had moved to Burien and joined the 1954 inaugural class at Sylvester Middle School.

“We used to ride on drags behind a tractor weighting down on the pallets moving up the rocks and leveling out the field,” Jim says with pride. “All those little trees around Sylvester, we planted all those, our science class did.”

He attended Highline High School during the 1950s, and by 1958 he left to finish his schooling with the U.S. Navy. Now, after years of working security and managing convenience stores, Jim has found himself asking for help from others – something he’s managed to avoid most of his life.

“All I want to do is get ahead myself, and maybe someday I can help somebody else get ahead too,” he says, with eyes wide. “You can rest assured in turn I’d be helping someone else down the line; it wouldn’t stop with me.

“I don’t want anybody to give me something for nothing. If I can get it, I’m willing to pay it back. I don’t want a hand out; I just want a hand up.”

If you have something you’d trade for Jim’s Mini Maglite, please click here to email us – we’ll not only connect you with Jim, but we’ll post progress reports as he attempts to “trade up.”

Come on Burien – let’s give this couple a helping hand!

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2 Responses to “Starting From Scratch At 71: One Man’s Plan To Reach Financial Independence, One Trade At a Time”
  1. Coverofnight says:

    Wonder how much of their money over the years has gone up in smoke with their tobacco habit…!!

  2. napavine says:

    I could find something to trade with him, But his picture scares me. Maybe a less creepy family photo would help.

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