Jasen Howard is not stuck, not anymore, although people who don't know him might think differently. He has the hardscrabble life story anyone who sees him selling the street newspaper The Contributor every day on the corner of 21st and West End would expect: He grew up in the projects, just outside Chicago. His father left his mother when he was too young to remember. His mother struggled from then on, which meant that he struggled, too, although in his alpha-male way, he doesn't think of it that way. He's always been a hustler, he says, a wanderer, into self-reliance and the loose romanticism of a life without direction. When he eventually got tired of squatting at his sister's place near Chicago something like two years ago, that spirit fired again, and Howard decided to hitchhike back to Panama City, Fla., where he'd spent some time wandering before.
But Howard got stuck in Nashville. While trying to hitch a ride south, a police officer stopped him and said that if Howard wanted out of here, he'd have to buy his way out, and if he wanted to go to jail, he should just come back to the highway and try to hitch again. Howard landed at the Nashville Rescue Mission, where he tried to put together enough cash for a bus ticket. He dropped in at labor pools, but nobody picked him up. He moved to Tent City and learned about The Contributor.
"It was the only way for me to make any money at the time," Howard says. "So I just went around looking for places and ways to sell this thing. I found this corner a couple months after I started selling, and I've been on this corner ever since — like 15 months, every day."
Howard walks up and down the block, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, rain or snow or shine, quietly holding the paper like a little billboard. For a $1 paper, he averages a $1 tip. He buys the papers for a quarter apiece. He does about $1,700 in monthly sales, one-third of which go to his "regulars." In little more than a year, he has become the runaway top seller of the highly successful Contributor, the first person ever to reach 10,000 sales. The dogtags around his neck — issued by the paper's staff in recognition — say so.
And sometime between then and now, another thing came to him: peace. He wasn't stuck at all, really, but unburdened —free of the weight an unattached life can lay on you, can break your back with, so sneakily, when the romance fades and you're left in a flooded tent on a Cumberland River bank made a vagabond pond by forces well beyond your control. He got married. He and his wife live in an apartment a block from his corner. They have a white cat and HVAC.
And if you ask him, Jasen Howard will give you the stories of Nashville's homeless, many of whose aren't unlike his own. Just be sure to leave a tip.