Wayne Bugg gazed around the ransacked interior of the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Minneapolis — floors piled with broken glass, overturned office supplies, scattered jewelry — left by looters during protests and riots over George Floyd’s death.
It looks bad now, but it was much worse a week ago, he said. “They just flipped over everything. It was complete chaos. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
For Bugg, that’s saying a lot.
He’s seen a lot of destruction. He understands the looters’ pain and frustration; as a black man in America he has felt it himself. Struggles in his youth have left him with compassion and empathy for which he is widely admired.
Those qualities are evident as he works to put the thrift store at 2939 S. 12th Ave. back in order. Across the city, store owners are picking up the pieces. Not all have Bugg’s patience and resolve.
“His life experience has given him enduring wisdom,” said Minneapolis police Lt. Grant Snyder, who leads a homeless outreach unit and met Bugg at the thrift store. “No matter what your trouble is, it’s like he’s looking into your soul.”
At 41, Bugg is the store manager and associate executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul-Twin Cities. His home is not far from the corner where Floyd died. He lives comfortably with his wife and 10-year-old twins. They also have three grown kids.
But there was a time when that kind of future seemed out of reach.
Bugg grew up in Harvey, Ill., a poverty-stricken suburb just south of Chicago. In his teens, his mother and stepfather became addicted to crack — along with many of their neighbors. He would come home from school to find his parents with “their eyes glazed, almost like dementia.” Having seen its damage, Bugg says he never used the drug. But it cast a shadow on his life.
“In the midst of the drug epidemic and gangs and poverty, at some point in school I lost hope.”
He dabbled in liquor and marijuana. He wasn’t violent but he misbehaved enough to get kicked out of high school.
His folks sent him to live with his aunt and cousins in Gary, Ind., which was just as blighted. Jobs were so scarce that an opening at McDonald’s would draw a line of applicants two blocks long.
“So then I began to sell crack, which was sad because I became the very thing I hated, out of necessity,” he recalled.
At about 20, he moved with his aunt and cousins to live in Minneapolis. They wound up on the south side. The man next door worked for the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, three blocks away, and needed help moving donated furniture. Bugg agreed to help and eventually became a cashier. One day Darryl Bach, then president of the St. Vincent de Paul-Twin Cities Volunteer Council Board, changed Bugg’s future.
“This old white man came up and told me I needed to do something with my life,” Bugg said. “I was shocked, but it got my attention. … I saw a man who cared enough to say something.”
Bugg earned his GED; keep going, Bach said. Bugg earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Metropolitan State University. St. Vincent de Paul covered much his tuition.
Now, after 23 years at the store, he’ll be next in line for the top job at the Twin Cities society, Executive Director Ed Koerner said. “I sleep so much easier at night, knowing that if I dropped dead tomorrow the ball’s going to be picked up and he’ll probably carry it farther than I could.”
Koerner recalled the time Bugg told his life story to an audience of about 300 mostly older white people, at a St. Vincent de Paul regional meeting and “at the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.” Bugg had the same effect when he talked to a group of Richfield high school students, Koerner said. “I walked out of the gymnasium and you could hear kids crying.”
He treats every store customer with respect, Koerner said. “In a normal day in our world down there it gets pretty crazy. Heroin addicts, homeless people who are intoxicated.” Bugg gives them clothes if they need them and has been known to help them put on free shoes and socks. “It’s always about the need of the person and the dignity of the person.”
At the store on Thursday, Bugg found a man on the sidewalk outside shooting up what appeared to be heroin. Bugg stopped and talked to the man. He told him it wasn’t safe to do that in public or to shoot up alone. Another person should be there in case someone overdoses.
“I don’t agree with it, but I know the reality of people that are hurting — drugs camouflage that hurt,” Bugg said.
So although he was dismayed when he found the store in shambles, he also understood how people would feel after witnessing an act Bugg compared to “somebody being lynched,” why they’d be enraged when the officers weren’t immediately charged.
After years of feeling their voices weren’t being heard, he said, “people were mad and wanted to communicate their frustrations.”
So now he’s trying to address immediate needs. With some grocery stores trashed, the thrift store has given out hundreds of boxes of food every day. He is heartened to see the diversity of those gathering to pick it up.
“I see the silver lining in this — people coming together, white, black, Chinese, Hmong,” Bugg said. “I wish it was like this all the time.”