TAMPA — Greg Harris woke up at 6:30 a.m., showered in the Salvation Army shelter and walked for 45 minutes. Jerome Clemons showed up two hours early and sat outside on a bench.
It was their first day of work.
They had spent years homeless. Clemons was a high school dropout whose father was murdered and mother died early. Harris was a former University of Utah linebacker whose knee injury started his free fall.
They had slept on park benches and in shelters, praying for a break. They became friends on the street because they shared things in common.
Each could have moved in with relatives, who never knew the complete truth. Harris, 45, stayed with his parents only on cold days. Clemons, 35, spent nights at his grandmother's house just to shower. Pride caused them both to stash blankets and backpacks in bushes because they didn't want to look like bag ladies.
They loaned each other $5 some nights when one was short the $10 needed to sleep at a shelter. They knew they could count on each other to return the favor.
They admired each other's work ethic, paired at day labor construction or cleaning jobs.
"He likes to work, and I like to work," Harris said. "That's not always the case."
They floated from soup kitchens to church outreach programs for meals. One Sunday in February, over eggs, grits and sausage at the Hyde Park Methodist Church, a pastor asked Harris if he wanted a job.
"Absolutely," he said.
"Know anyone else?" the pastor asked.
"My friend Jerome's right there."
A couple at the church were opening a bakery in Hyde Park Village and had told pastors and volunteers that they wanted to give three disadvantaged people jobs. Harris, Clemons and another man were chosen for interviews at Sophie's French Bakery and Cafe.
Todd Binkowski, the bakery's owner, asked the men about their work experience. Harris, who joined the Army after he dropped out of college, had rewired chandeliers and worked for a lawn care company. Clemons had done stucco work and washed dishes. Both had arrests on their records.
Binkowski offered them part-time work at $8 an hour.
Clemons called his grandmother. "I won the lotto," he said.
They started March 1.
For weeks, they scrubbed dishes by hand until Sophie's bought a dishwasher. The third man hired off the streets stopped showing up. Harris and Clemons were happy to take his hours.
With a job, Clemons felt dignified enough to stay with his family as he saved up for his own place. Proud of his new job, he wanted to have access to a shower every day before work.
Each day on the job brought back a little more civility. Clemons was surprised the first day when the boss told him to wait for instructions at a table inside the cafe rather than in the kitchen or outside. Seeing black musicians and customers at ease in a very white neighborhood and cafe opened his eyes.
The men shared lunch breaks with the chef, chatted up customers, downed soy lattes and tasted Sophie's spinach asparagus leek soup for consistency. Any apprehension the owners had about the men faded. The Binkowskis' son, 16-year-old Robert, started dropping Clemons off at the bus stop and driving Harris halfway home. A customer, who learned Harris walked to work, bought him a new Huffy bike.
"They're just a great part of the family," Carole Binkowski now says.
And they remember where they came from. Harris cooks hot dogs at Amazing Love Ministries, a homeless outreach center, after his shift, while Clemons hands struggling friends spare dollars at the bus station.
The two are no longer homeless.
Within a few weeks of working at Sophie's, both had saved enough for rent. The bakery's executive chef fixed up a cherub-shaped clock the cafe was going to throw out and gave it to Clemons.
His first home decoration.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected] tampabay.com.