‘Spare change. Spare change,” says the beaten voice of a white, 40ish bum. The man’s oval face has the shaky, unfocused quality of a 1950s porno film. The last distinct lines left on an otherwise bleary countenance are a red alcoholic nose and the gray stubble of a two-week beard. The man’s shopping cart is a garbage eruption — plastic bags, shoes, blankets. A torn bedroll droops over his cart heap, drags the sidewalk.
I glance over, mumble, “No thanks,” keep on walking.
It’s another day. That means when I leave my apartment I’ll be hit on for spare change. Usually three or four solicitations per domestic round trip, 365 days a year. Leaving home is running a gauntlet of crushing need.
There have been years when I’ve had surplus money. Indeed, I’ve had years when my monthly income was more than even my large appetites could swallow. In those days, I would load up $5 or $10 every Monday morning. Later, when a voice asked for spare change, I’d hand a bit over. When those funds were gone, that was it — no more vending until next week. I viewed those expenditures as another urban toll to pay, like parking meters, high rents, cable TV.
I’ve also had years when I was flat-ass broke and walked past the homeless with my eyes bolted to the ground, afraid I was too close to the pit.
Good days, days when I felt happy, I’d hear the voice, “Spare some change?” and I’d turn, look directly into glazed eyes, and say, “No, I’m just a month away from joining you. Save me a place by the horse statue.”
They would laugh and say, “Yeah,” and I would shudder, because I was a month away from the horse statue.
Spare-changing has become the American growth industry. Recently, I’ve noticed a more direct approach to begging. There’s a small market on the corner of my block. I buy sundries — toilet paper, cigarettes, canned food. Last week, positioned equidistant between doorway and cash register hovered a bona fide poor person. I placed my goods on the checkout counter, the poor person pointed to one item and inquired, “Can I have that?”
Walking downtown San Diego, downtown anywhere, one is set upon by panhandlers lurching about urban parks like midnight zombies suddenly released from the village graveyard. They stagger up to civilians, hands outstretched, moaning, “Spare change. Spare change.” Homelessness is a low-budget horror film played live, 24 hours a day.
Current guesses count one-quarter to 3 million of our fellow citizens living on streets. It didn’t take long for me to cop a third-world attitude about seeing street people as everyday backdrop. They’re part of my daily life, like Taco Bell, coffee-to-go, cluster theaters, rush-hour traffic.
I think most people realize the boat won’t hold as many rats as it used to, that, in fact, living standards are declining. Fewer of us can buy houses; women working no longer carries much political baggage, it’s become an economic necessity. Here’s an interesting stat. Between 1973 and 1986, families just starting out, those where head of household is 20 to 24 years old, lost 27 percent of their gross income (wage declines, inflation), about the same drop that was experienced during the Great Depression. And as we see an ever-growing line of people move into shopping carts, those of us left on the playing field take a deep breath, tighten the circle.
But that’s talk, talk, talk. The immediate point is I just don’t want to look at the rummy, begging bastards, and when I must I avert my eyes quickly and hope they don’t touch me, or drool over me, slobber their vile green and yellow spittle over my clean white sleeve. That’s the point.
Then again, as we’ve all heard, things happen.
7:39 a.m., in front of U.S. Grant Hotel. Good God, it’s windy, cold, and noisy. Busses belch smoke as they stop and start, must be 30 mph wind gusting down Broadway canyon, humans bustle to work, first things first. Must score coffee. Walk down to Fourth and C Street. We have gourmet coffees; 36 varieties. Get big mumbo-jumbo-to-go, circle back to Horton Plaza.
My ensemble consists of a righteous hangover; unwashed jeans; brown, tar-soaked down vest; tennies — tastefully set off by green baseball hat showcasing logo of bankrupt Alaskan construction company.
Horton Plaza resident bums awake to another day. On benches, a score of regulars assume morning positions. I find a group of four, one black, three white, all male, all about 40, sipping coffee dispensed by Taco Bell. Everyone has a beard and old Kmart green sleeping bag. I chat with Jim from the Midwest. Jim’s partially hung over, but there’s intelligence behind his shallow, yellow eyes. Says he was a contractor in San Diego 18, 20 years ago. He moved on, wound up in downstate Illinois, ran away from his wife 18 months ago. Jim instructs me on blood sales. Twelve bucks first visit, then 10, then 12, and so on, until after 10 completed appointments, one receives a 30-buck bonus. Jim has the feeding schedule at a nearby mission. They start feeding, he says, at 11. They give you a little mandatory prayer, but the service isn’t bad, doesn’t run too long.
He asks what I’m doing, I reply, “Writing a story.”
“What kind of a story?”
“On panhandling. A day spare-changing.”
Jim goes, “Uh-hum.” Here’s one more bullshit story, one of a hundred, a thousand, Bullshit is the eternal, unchanging part of his life.
We chat for a few minutes. I thank Jim for the professional overview, turn toward traffic, begin my working day.
8:01. Hit on for two smokes by residents, added to mumbo-jumbo coffee, I have already sustained a net loss for the day.
8:08. Begging shift starts to form. Clumps of people move out from Horton Plaza to curbside staging areas. The fashion is baseball hats, torn black jackets, tennies, and ’60s long hair. Over by the fountain, a gray-haired man is doing morning maintenance. Today is laundry day. The man sits, puts two black nylon socks on his hands. In his possession are two empty, king-size Carl’s to-go coffee cups. He fills each with water from the fountain, breaks out a tiny bar of soap, washes his socks in one cup, rinses them in the other.