Friday, November 18, 2005

Panhandling, Homeless, and Hustling

It was extemely cold yesterday, windy and snowing also. Restless, and
unwilling to fire up the furnace in my apartment, I threw on about 5 layers of
clothes, including my thermal underwear "union suit", and headed downtown.
Intent on walking around, taking pictures and filming, I got on the Transportation
Authority bus, paid my one dollar fare, and was on my way.
The bus was warm and I engaged in a pleasant conversation with another passenger during the ride. We parted company at the Transit Center, heading
off in different directions. I walked two blocks to Main Street, drinking
in the sights, thinking about the camera in my pocket and what I was going to
photograph. My stomach was beginning to growl and, out of habit,
I had a craving for a Fleetwood Diner cheeseburger. And then "it" happened,
right at the crosswalk at Main and Liberty.
"Hey Mister!", I heard a voice call out. I cringed, instinctively knowing what
was coming next. "Got any spare change, dude?"
Looking to my left, I see a guy, about 27 years old, dressed as normally as
anyone else on the street, with his hand out. "I just need a buck or two," he
throws in, as if that's going to make it easier. Just last month, I wrote about a scary experience when I felt threatened by a panhandler in nearly the exact same location. In fact, according to a local paper's monthly "Crime Map", this is the same location where numerous robberies, including daring daylight capers, have been happening over an extended period of time. Quickly and abruptly, I brush past the guy and am at the Fleetwood in two minutes.
While Elvis is cooking my burger, I start to think about this experience and to
discuss it with my waitress friend, Nola. We're both "streetwise townies" and it's
something that has hardened us to the growing panhandling situation in town. We know a lot of the "real" street people that are out there. We know them by name.
We know a little bit about their histories. We know where they hang out and the
games they run. And, we know their vices.
"Mary" is the Queen of the street people. She's been around forever and is
well known to everyone, including the police. I know her real name, that she is in her 60's, and that she's turned down offers that would get her off the street. She carries her belongings in plastic bags and when those bags get full, she fills a shopping cart with those bags. When one shopping cart is full, she fills another. When the second shopping cart is full, the police confiscate it. The contents end up in the dumpster behind the police station. Losing her precious boxes and newspapers infuriates Mary and she is always ready with a scalding "Anti-Law Enforcement" tirade after such an incident. That's when I know to avoid her.
There's "Danny", who, at one point in his life, was well on the way to collecting a pension from the local school system after spending more than 10 years as a janitor. He was pretty normal until his mother died. He lost his family, his home, and his job, hitting the streets with a bottle of hard liquour and a taste for crack cocaine. I saw Danny sprawled out on the Diag this summer and, after a short conversation, I gave him $5. He dissappeared into the liquor store with one of his street buddies as I watched from a distance.
In a west side park, carefully concealed beneath a tall, steep set of stairs, there's a old mattress, some filthy blankets, and plastic sheets to stop the rain. It looks like a kid's "fort" but it is home, at least for most of the year, to "Eddie", a guy that "Mary" helps and looks out for. Every morning at 6:30 a.m., Eddie sits through the required Bible reading, and then gets hot oatmeal, toast, coffee, and orange juice for breakfast at the Presbyterian food kitchen. Eddie earns extra cash by hustling. He very subtley let's people know that he'll "fall from grace" for a few bucks, meaning that he'll masturbate in front of you. For a few more bucks, he'll allow you "to fall from grace", meaning he'll let you do it for him. I've seen him run that game on a few desperate old gay men more than once. I guess all the Bible readings have taught him something.
The names and descriptions and descriptions could continue - "Moose" and the posse of teenage runaway boys he pimps out, the "Liberty Plaza Crackheads", eating out of the dumpster to envoke sympathy from tourists, "Nitrous John", and "Junkyard Johnny". I've met more than I care to admit. So when the normal looking 27 year old hit me up and I brushed him off, I don't think that I was being callous and uncaring at all. I was saving myself from inviting any more sadness and misery into my life. Maybe the next time, I'll spring for some hot food and coffee, set up my little video camera, and record an interview.
The attached picture is a quick sketch I did of Mary, without her knowing, in the Fleetwood a couple of years ago.