EYEBALLING THE FOUR TEENAGE INMATES hunkered around the jail cell, Fernando Mateo slaps the gray concrete wall with one hand. “Yo! I’m from the same place you come from—the streets,” the 33-year-old visitor tells the boys, all sentenced drug dealers and traffickers confined for short terms at New York City’s Rikers Island detention center. “Yeah, I was cool. I smoked pot and blew coke. I experimented. But I stopped because I wanted to stay alive and make money, be somebody. And if I can do it, you can. You don’t need a fancy education. All you need is your hands and a lot of heart.”
Mateo knows something about both; his hands and his heart propelled his unlikely rise in the business world. Once an unmotivated 10th-grade dropout, he now owns two upscale carpet stores in Manhattan, including a tony midtown showroom, and pulls in $3 million in sales a year. And he has decided to put his grit and street savvy to use—by teaching these wayward teenagers how to lay carpet. His hope, he says, is that the craft will eventually lift them into the mainstream, much as it did him. “I bought my first Mercedes at 19,” recalls Mateo, “but I did it with a skill and hard work.”
On this day, Mateo is at Rikers to meet prospective students for the carpet-installation program he began this year with $2,000 of his own money. One local firm has already hired three graduates—all nonviolent offenders—of his first, tough, three-month course. “For two years,” says Mateo, who has won a number of civic awards, “I just went around to jails, schools and drug-abuse centers, talking about how I made it. One day this kid said, ‘You talk a great story, but what can you teach me?’ That’s when I got the idea for a class.”
To launch the program, Mateo spent six months huddling with jail administrators, often at the expense of his businesses, which cater to corporate giants and a moneyed clientele that includes Raquel Welch, Bill Cosby and Cyndi Lauper. After more than 100 applicants had been screened, six were selected for the twice-weekly, four-hour classes. Says Deputy Warden Howard Robertson: “A lot of programs fail because there’s no money incentive when inmates get out. This one will earn them bucks. That’s why I think he has got a winner.”
As a guard hovers nearby, Mateo moves into the jail corridor and invites the youths to try their hand at the trade. Their instructor, Brian Gamier, 35, a self-employed carpet installer recruited by Mateo, leads them to a practice carpeting platform. “What really hooks them is the money,” Mateo explains. “These kids can make $200 a day—easy—selling crack. But laying carpet, they can start apprenticing in the [carpenters and carpet-layers workers] union at $18 an hour. If they’re good, someday they can make up to $200,000 a year. Legal.” The affable entrepreneur says he’d like to accept more inmates but now wants to ensure the program’s success by selecting the “most savable” to teach. “They need good examples,” he says, “somebody besides the drug kingpins to look up to.”
In his own case, that example came from his father. Cristóbal Mateo and his wife, Carmen, moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic with their nine children (Mateo was the youngest) in 1960. Cristóbal had owned a taxi line in Santo Domingo but in New York worked 18-hour days at a small grocery store he opened on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He did well enough to send Mateo and a sister to parochial elementary schools and a Massachusetts boarding school “to protect us from the streets.”
By the time Fernando was 12, his parents were spending enough time in the Dominican Republic to prompt his own return to the island for two years. In 1972 he came back to Manhattan to start his sophomore year at a public high school. Suddenly, “I felt like a hick,” he says. “So I made friends with the in crowd, where guys wore chains, carried boom boxes and did drugs. I’d get high every morning before class. After six months I was so disgusted with myself, I dropped out. I knew if I stayed in, I’d end up a druggie, another bum.”
By 14, Mateo was working part-time selling baby furniture, but at his father’s suggestion, he enrolled in a short course in linoleum installation and for a while hustled free-lance jobs. At 16, he was hired at a rug store, where a master carpet layer began to teach him the craft. One day the young apprentice accidentally walked on a white carpet that had been unrolled on the sidewalk, and the owner publicly dressed him down and called him an idiot. “I was so embarrassed, I quit. A few months later, another store let me go because some guy accused me of taking jobs from customers on the side, which was a lie. But that did it. I never wanted to be bossed again.”
What followed were several exhausting, financially precarious years. He lived in a small, unheated apartment, went through a failed first marriage and—with the help of his meager savings and a $2,000 stake from his dad—opened his first Carpet Fashions store on the Lower East Side. He knew little about running a tiny, storefront shop, but he kept at it nonstop. “One week I’d go around the city in my beat-up car and a duffel bag full of calling cards, putting them under doors, and the next week I’d lay carpet. I learned things the hard way.”
In the store’s early days, Mateo says, “poor people in the projects, in crummy little apartments, they were the backbone of my business. That’s when I promised God that if I ever became a success, I’d give something back to the community. I just didn’t know the promise would someday take me to Rikers.”
Mateo would first have to keep his business afloat. He courageously faced down the drug pushers and junkies outside his shop (“I dealt with them straight, and they respected me”) as well as constant financial woes. In 1978 he knelt before a banker and begged for a $500 credit line to keep the store going. “I humbled myself, but I got what I wanted,” he reports. “I knew my stuff, and he just saw the desire coming out of my eyes.” Eight years later, Mateo closed his small shop and opened his first large store on a better street.
His private life bloomed as well. Married for five years to Stella Urban, 36, a real estate office manager, they have a modern, four-bedroom suburban home overlooking the Hudson River, where they live with daughters Megan, 4, and Hennessy, 3, and a son, Fernando Jr., 12, from Mateo’s first marriage.
As for the success of the first four Rikers graduates, one now lays carpet in Puerto Rico, and three were hired by Dynasty Floor Inc. of Brooklyn. Jason Santiago, 19, who served eight months at Rikers for peddling crack, has been on the job for three months. “I love the money [up to $300 a day],” he says. “I don’t have to worry about watching my back or getting shot—and my mom knows I won’t end up dead or in jail.” Dynasty owner John Kuhlmeier adds, “Jason and the others are doing fine—mostly on commercial jobs in office buildings. My clients know they’re ex-cons, and they’re all behind me 100 percent.”
Back in one of the candidate’s cells after their tryout session, Mateo’s latest prospects get goodbye hugs from the man who has come to offer them hope. “I want to meet your families,” he tells them, “because if you get in the class, I’ll be seeing you every week—you’ll be like my family.” From the hallway, Deputy Warden Robertson says, “You’ve got to love a guy like that—he just wants them for three months. But he’ll keep up with them. When they walk out of here, he’ll be waiting at the gate.”