The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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Pictureman & Mrs Youngblood Serve Up Hope, Food In Belmont Heights [Counter Points]
Posted Nov 6, 2012 by Jeff Houck
Updated Nov 6, 2012 at 06:03 PM
TAMPA Pictureman holds a Styrofoam clamshell container in his left hand, using a long pair of aluminum tongs with his right to pull a golden brown tilapia filet from a well of roiling oil.
His long, lean body looks like a parentheses as he stands over the fryer. It’s an involuntary posture. At 6-foot-4, he’s four inches taller than the head room inside the 30-foot-long, flat-faced, electric-yellow school bus he’s turned into a food truck. Whenever he steps off the bus with his sore knees, his 67-year-old back remains in a curve.
Pictureman sets the container on the counter and lays the fish over a bed of crispy french fries. He reaches for an unmarked, caramel-colored plastic container with the label peeled off.
“I call this my Comeback,” he says, dusting the fries with a salty powder that looks like Old Bay, but isn’t. “Whenever I put Comeback on my fries, they come back.”
He closes the clamshell, puts it in a plastic bag and hands it to his lunchtime customer though a side window as dollar bills come back the other direction. The customer, a young man in a plain white T-shirt, turns and walks away along North 22nd Street. Another customer steps up and orders the fried shrimp dinner.
In Belmont Heights, you get called by what you do. So people in the neighborhood shout “Pictureman” when they see James Youngblood. Even though it has been years since he snapped photos.
More than 30 years ago, he bought some camera equipment off a guy on the street. A nice Nikon with some lenses and a bag. Paid $50. He used it to take pictures in East Tampa nightclubs. He would take photos one night, take the film to get developed and then return the next night to sell prints to club-goers for $5 a pop.
He made enough money to build a cart to sell food as customers came out of the clubs. That turned into a handful of food trucks. And this bus. And then some long-haul tractor trailers he ran across country.
During that time, he and his wife, Sheilah – better known as Mrs. Youngblood—have become fixtures in East Tampa as they’ve worked to help the poor and needy around them.
That’s why in 2008, they set up at the C. Blythe Andrews Jr. Public Library on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and gave away 10,000 hot dogs and bottles of water. The library is a polling place. They wanted to draw in the neighborhood and register some voters.
Barack Obama was on the ballot.
Efforts like theirs boosted the turnout rate among black voters across the country to 65.3 percent in 2008, up from the 60.3 percent in 2004, nearly matching the voter turnout rate of white eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center.
This year, there’s a different challenge in their neighborhood.
Four years ago, their goal was to do something that had never been done—to put a man in the White House who they finally could identify with and who knew something about their struggles. It was a goal few thought they would live to see, especially people like the Youngbloods, who lived during Jim Crow days and endured the push for Civil Rights.
With that goal achieved, the questions for 2012 are: What comes after the mountaintop? How do you stay on the mountain with all the difficulties Obama has experienced the past four years?
Mrs. Youngblood isn’t worried.
“I think people around here are more excited,” she says with a soft, serene tone. “They are fired up and ready to go to the polls. They believe in Obama.”
Politics is a common topic of conversation for her, especially at the foundation she established, the Our Sisters – Our Friends Organization. The not-for-profit group helps single women in Tampa reach financial self-sufficiency. It also offers meals to the homeless and raises money to do things like provide Halloween candy to children and make Thanksgiving dinner available.
She started the foundation four years ago after hearing a voice in her sleep that told her she needed to help single women. At one point in her life, when she was young, she needed help. Working as a cosmetician to make ends meet, she was told she earned one dollar over the amount to qualify for food stamps. She wants to be there for women who, like her, needed a helping hand.
Her husband wasn’t so sure about the voice she heard. He suggested she needed to see a psychiatrist. She was undeterred and created the group with the help of her sister.
“God told me to start this foundation,” she says. “I’m on a mission and I can’t stop.”
She says everyone she knows at her foundation intends to vote for Obama. It isn’t that he hasn’t made mistakes, she says. People recognize that there have been problems. Promises made four years ago have not been kept.
But the conversation is different this year, Mrs. Youngblood says.
Yes, Obama became an icon. Drive by the Money Save market on MLK Boulevard and you’ll see a painted portrait of a smiling Obama on the front of the building, right next to the ice box.
He is still an epic figure to Mrs. Youngblood and her friends, but dealing with the pressures of the office—his struggles within his own party and conflicts with Republicans – has made him more man than myth, and a crusader on their behalf.
“They are looking at him not as a black man, but as a man who is trying to lead,” she says.
When her friends speak of Mitt Romney, it isn’t with derision, she says. They appreciate his business acumen. They acknowledge his leadership skills.
Yes, Pictureman says, as a businessman, he can admire Romney’s achievements. The past four years have not been easy for the Youngbloods. High fuel prices forced him to close the trucking business. The food bus is back on the corner of 22nd and Genesee streets, trying to re-establish its rep after having been parked for more than a year.
“People who are struggling look to someone successful and think, ‘If he can be rich, maybe I can, too,’” he says.
But Romney cannot possibly understand their struggle, Mrs. Youngblood says. His wealth insulates him from knowing the pain and difficulty they experience on a daily basis. Being in the White House would only insulate him even more.
“How can he relate to the poor?” she asks while sitting under a shady oak canopy that towers over the food truck. “People are afraid because he can’t relate to the struggle.”
“I’m very open-minded,” she says. “You can’t grow if you’re close-minded. I try not to be so quick to judge.
“But we gave George W. Bush eight years. Obama has only had four.”
It’s a constant theme with the Youngbloods: Obama hasn’t had enough time. He needs more time. He has earned more time.
That’s why they gave out hot dogs and drinks again last week. To draw in the neighborhood. To buy the president some more time.
“A dream is just a dream unless you act on it and make it a reality,” she says.
First you have to shake a little Comeback on it.