There’s a lot in a name. Names carry weight — so much so that some are banned, and some are trademarked so that they can’t be shared. Names are the last thing to be printed on our graves and the first things to anoint us when we are born. They both identify and label. They tell us who we are.
Some would even say that a name can make something exist, not the other way around.
With RTomJunior Chambers, names are very important. Two names, to be precise. One, his birth name, Robert. Another name, however, was one that he wanted very much to be never used, lest it should happen to make it true. That name was DISABLED. Both were names he detested the day he walked into St. Johns Legal Aid in June of 2018.
Megan Wall, an attorney in the office, overheard Chambers speaking with the receptionist at the front desk. He had peddled his bike there and was surprisingly neat looking from coming in out of the heat. Chambers is a well-dressed man who speaks slowly, sometimes making the listener wait long enough between sentences to wonder if he was going to continue. He has a slight limp and big smile.
“My first name is the common name ‘Robert.’” Chambers said. “It's so common that I don't like it. (When) I attempt to take care of business Roberts are so common I have difficulties.”
Chambers is in the middle of his second attempt to have his name legally changed. Originally, Robert Thomas Chambers, he requested to add the “Junior” to his first name, a mistake that allegedly was supposed to be on his original birth certificate.
“My mother should know (my name) she birthed me,” Chambers said. “She said it's supposed to be on there, but she couldn't read that well and it wasn’t. My mother calls me Tom Junior.”
So, Tom Junior Chambers filled out his application to have his name changed and did. The state added the Junior in his name and sent him a new identification card. Only this time, they didn’t get it right either.
Why? TomJunior. One word. Confusing, yes. But that was the original intention and Chambers intended to honor that. He hated his common first name, Robert. He wanted a new name, one paying homage to his mother’s original intention of him going by his middle name, Thomas Junior. A name that suited him and that was original, like him. First name — RTomJunior. One word. Last name, Chambers. What is so difficult to understand about this?
Which is precisely what he was trying to tell the receptionist at St. Johns Legal Aid that hot day in July when Megan Wall came over to try to assist him (or perhaps relieve the receptionist).
“What I do is a holistic approach to any client situation,” Wall said. “Why do you want to change your name? Sometimes when someone's all irritated about something, it's really not that. It's really something wrong (in their) life.”
Chambers truly does want his name changed. Ask him and he will tell you about the phone book being chock full of Robert Chambers. This is a point of contention for him but Chambers himself is more than a legal name. He a man with a sense of humor and an iron will. He is an ex-felon. And, he is also homeless.
It turns out, originally when Chambers filed for a name change, he was accidently granted one against the state’s policy. They don’t do name changes for ex-felons and this is probably why he was having such a hard time correcting their mistake. Additionally, when you live in a tent in the woods off state road 16, people tend not to listen to you very much.
Wall did, however. She listened to his whole story and determined that what he needed was more than a new name. First, he needed to have an income over $300 a month, which was what he was currently sustaining off. Second, he could use a better tent, or, at least something that wasn’t falling apart and letting mosquitos and other “creepy crawlies” in.
“I said, you know what, I see the bigger problem here,” she said.
Chambers had been charged with battery more than 20 years earlier and had been living in a tent for the past ten. Directly after his release, he swore off not only alcohol, but women as well. He describes himself as a “happy loner,” perfectly content with seclusion in the woods. He isn’t content with his station, however, and says he has been applying for jobs the entire time he has been homeless. With 64 years behind him, a record, myriad physical handicaps and no formal education to speak of, he isn’t exactly being messaged by recruiters on LinkedIn. That didn’t stop him continuing to put “applications all over St. Augustine,” however.
Wall describes the following conversation thusly —
“Why can’t you find work?”
“My knee collapses on me and I'm always falling on the ground. I can't really remember stuff very well.”
“So, you’re disabled.”
“If you’re not disabled then why can’t you find work?”
“Well, I can't really see out of this eye and I can't really hear out of this ear.”
“So, you’re disabled.”
And so on.
At 64 years of age, Chambers was one year shy of qualifying for Medicare. Although, as much as Wall tried, she could not get him to admit to being disabled. She tried regardless. She decided to donate her time to represent him and take him though the legal process of claiming a disability. Even right up to being interviewed at a disability hearing, however, he denied having one. Wall took him to doctor appointments and interviews with a claims representative for Social Security. He showed up to all of the appointments on time but each time, when asked, “Do you have a disability?” Chambers would say, “no.”
“So, I said look, this is a man who's just told you all his impairments and whether those do or do not add up to something you think (is your choice),” Wall said. “There is nothing he can do in the marketplace.”
Then, one day, Chambers checked his bank account and found there was $2,900 of back pay from the federal government. This was more money then he had seen in a long time and it was far more than he expected after going though the disability claims process. It was also a prophetic amount of money, considering he owed exactly $2669.60 to reinstate his driver’s license, which is exactly what he peddled his bike all the way to the DMV off of U.S. 1 to get. He used the rest to buy a (very) used van, which he parked outside his nephew’s house and ran power to a fan that runs while he is sleeping.
“It surprises me how cool my fan keeps me in the van at night,” Chambers said. “I don't know why it keeps me that cool. (With the tent) even being as careful as I can, the zippers pop. I don't want to wake up and a creepy crawler in there with me, but I don't worry about them coming into that van.”
Chambers gives full credit to Megan Wall for her help, however.
“Now I don't have to worry about the court, the collections or nothing,” he said. “It went through so smoothly because I had a lawyer.
“Over here they run up against the WALL,” he added.
Now at 65 years old, Chambers can claim Medicaid, although he stresses that “the government has retired me,” not himself. He won’t admit to choosing retirement any more than he will a disability, which he says means, “having to depend on other people to survive.” Certainly, Chambers doesn’t need anything from anyone. He finds happiness in the small things like have a fan at night, but he can certainly live without it. Preference isn’t necessity with him — not by a long shot.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t get what he wants when he has made up his mind. After everything, one of the first places Chambers went in his van was to a local print shop to have a tee shirt made — one that corrected what he couldn’t get the state to correct. Emblazoned across the chest in bold print, the shirt says RTomJunior.
Does something exist because it has a name, or because someone listens?