Patrolling the park’s perimeter is an older Mexican guy, SF Giants hat, inevitable plastic bag, selling cigarettes. Mexican cigs cost 50 cents, U.S. smokes (Winston, Marlboro) a buck. It appears downtown homeless are such an established industry that they support their own vendors, their own service economy.
8:12. “Spare some change?” I turn to locate the voice behind the question and catch a blur out the corner of my eye. It’s a woman, maybe late 20s, face ravaged, filthy blond short hair. Her trembling voice asks, “Are you panhandling?”
“Trying to get up a bottle?” She holds out an open palm, offers its contents, maybe 35 cents, most of it in pennies.
I stare down at her dirty, small hand, “Nah, I’m panhandling too. Why don’t you keep what you got.”
Utterly defeated, even in this gesture, she manages, “Okay. Well, I’m trying to get up a bottle. I’ll come back when I do.”
8:15. Lean pickings here in front of U.S. Grant. Civilian foot traffic dies after eight, and streets revert to the people, that is, those of us who beg. I move over to Fifth and E and set up my office. I’ve got a stout trash can to lean on; there’s a newspaper rack across the street and a better class of prospects. Most foot traffic hereabouts involves Nobel’s Chicken House, Donut, Sandwich, Ice Cream. I hit on five or six departing customers, nothing. One woman, middle-aged, silver executive dress, gender-based polka-dot tie, $100 hairdo, pauses long enough to direct me to state employment office.
“They have jobs down there,” she says.
“Don’t want no job. Just-want-be-here.”
Here comes an old bum wearing a blue Raiders baseball cap, red woolen jacket, striped jogging pants, tennies, big plastic bag, sipping on a can of Bud.
What the hell, “Spare change. Spare change.” He grimaces, avoids my eyes. (Additional fashion note, all the bums wear tennies.)
8:35. Drift over to Broadway and Fifth in search of adequate crowd. I begin spare-changing but already beaten by 30-year-old male with exceptional costume appropriately set off by leather bedroom slippers, pink sock on one foot, blue sock on the other. Over his collapsed shoulder hangs a plastic airline bag and two standard-issue Hefty trash bags. What I admire most, though, is his hair. It’s long, filthy brown, exploding out of his head, eyes, nose, chin. An eruption of matted hair, impossible to see his face. The man takes individual approach, goes up to each bystander, gets his face in their faces, asks for specific amount. “Can I have a quarter? Can you spare 30 cents?”
Appealing technique, good sales approach. Don’t ask for more than one decision, make it easy.
Jesus, it is ugly standing out here asking people for money. It took all of ten minutes before I became worthless bum. All humankind avoids me. Simply put, I don’t exist. Not a single civilian has looked at me. Each personhood has locked his eyes downward and scurried on. It is an extraordinarily creepy feeling, like being invisible, like living in another dimension. I want to grab one of these little shoppers by the throat and scream, “I’m alive, you son of a bitch.”
Oh God, here comes this fucked-up guy again. He’s about 50 years old, 105 pounds, has something seriously wrong with his eyes. They bulge out insanely from their sockets, permanently locked in one direction — upward. He’s not blind, navigates well enough, but he hitches his back, his huge, egg-yolk orbs peer over his right shoulder, his squeaky voice chants, “Hi, ya, hi, ya, hi, ya.” The geek has already made five or six circuits this morning. I realize I’m avoiding him the way civilians avoid me. I stop, listen to myself. What is my soft, sweet voice saying?
“Don’t look at it, maybe it will go away. Christ, creep, don’t relate to me. Don’t spill all your pain over me. Don’t spill all that craziness over me. Don’t drool on my clean sleeve.”
I am also sick — nose runny from flu, head pounding from last night’s booze, legs wobbling, stomach nauseous, which puts me right on the normal health curve of my codependents.
I walk on. Hard to find a corner free of bums. Fifth and C is taken, couple bums have set up shop. Sixth and C, two cops at coffee in Arby’s. I spare-change a teenage girl in sweatpants. Her unlined face darkens — contempt, fear. She manages a vigorous head shake, closes her eyes, tightens chest.
8:52. Frank’s drunk. He’s got his plastic bag, blue sweater, red, engorged face; a traditional alkie bum. Frank’s worked San Diego three years. His best day, known as Jackpot Day, was the day he made $87. Frank was the only bum around when the cruise ship docked. Holiday passengers made their way to shore, many drunk, many generous. Frank still smiles when thinking of it. “Normally,” he says, “I make 20, 30 bucks a shift, but that don’t go nowhere by the time you get something to eat, a few drinks.…”
Am very impressed at 20 bucks a day, but Frank is living the part, completely there, 8 a.m. drunk, red eyes, missing front tooth. No question, an authentic bum. No question when you give Frank money, you give money to a man who won’t double-cross you, won’t sneak down the street and get a job. The time is long gone when Frank could hold a job. I say, “Good luck.”
He replies, “Good luck to you too.” I shudder.
Back at gourmet coffee for another cup of Kona and an egg roll — $1.31. When this adventure started, back an hour ago, I was shy about soliciting women, wishing to spare them assault by another sullen, bearded male stranger. Those niceties quickly evaporated. Now I beg from women, children, anything near the mammal family.
Ask a business guy in blue suit for 50 cents. He ignores me, reaches down and clutches his right pocket. Yup, still there. I spare-change a city bus driver at a stop light. He looks out the window, deadpans, “You’ve got to be kidding.”