‘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.
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.”
Fifth and C, waiting for San Diego Trolley. When a trolley stops, people mill about, getting off and on. The drama produces a nice wave action of foot traffic. I stand in the crowd’s center, turning slowly in a semi-pirouette, ask for money as I go. Nada.
There is a thing about how your senses sharpen, your street senses. I’m beginning to notice people — people making regular foot tours of downtown, people setting up begging booths. I notice who’s a tourist, who’s got money, who’s nonlocal, who works what turf.
At Sixth and B. Christ, here comes Jim the bum, my buddy from Horton Plaza, Make that my long-lost-buddy-from-two-hours-ago. “Yo, Jim.”
He greets me with warmth. I am very pleased to see my partner. We exchange “How’s it goings” as if months have passed since our last encounter.
I inquire about his most recent activities. Jim’s had a productive morning, signing up for general relief, casing a new shelter.
“Whatcha doing now?”
“Going up to give blood. Pay is ten bucks. Come on along; I’ll show you where it is.”
We stroll B Street. Jim the bum shows me a side alley where he slept last night, which was okay, except for incessant drug-dealing. We say hello to a group of bums promenading back from the blood bank.
Jim and I arrive at the Alpha Therapeutic Corporation, 12th and Broadway. Hours: Monday through Friday 6 a.m. to 1, Saturdays 6 a.m. to 12:30. The place has a feel of a state unemployment office, say in Watts or downtown Oakland, better yet, Philadelphia, where management provides armed guards, bullet-proof glass, employees who hate their jobs, hate the people they have to service.
Entering, one wades through cigarette smoke. A full house of bums wait in molded chairs. There’s a bureaucratic counter; over it is an official notice: “If you leave your section area you may lose your turn.” Behind the counter in a back room, actually a large warehouse area, are perhaps 30 gray Naugahyde couches, occupied by bums giving blood.
Jim the bum and I walk through the reception area into a side room, designated for smokers. About eight of us hunker down and light up. I sit on a plastic garbage can; Jim squats against the wall. I ask how long it takes to give blood. Am told it takes about two hours, which no longer seems to be any kind of a deal.
Across the room a young black male and his girlfriend rustle papers. Something about the pair is out of place. They look healthy, they don’t appear hung over or stoned. Alarmingly, they’re also approaching donors with a smile, acting friendly. Instant neon sign illuminates my mind, “This is a hustle.” No one talks friendly to us. (It’s already “us.”)
The slender black male walks towards my redoubt. “Hi, how are you?” It’s a question so utterly out of context, so devoid of even the slenderest thread of authenticity that Jim the bum and I stare.
My man continues, “Listen, we got some petitions here, I need you to sign one of these petitions for the State of California.”
I stare at his petitions; they’re real, in at least triplicate. I glance at the man and say, “I’m not registered to vote in California.”
The salesman doesn’t miss a beat. “Hey, I got six years till I can vote. I’m a convicted felon, can’t vote or buy weapons. So what?”
I look at the petition again. Blah, blah, blah, $1.8 billion over eight years. Drug enforcement, expands penalties for first-degree murder, increases penalties for minors. Tightens laws on drugs.
My guess is at least 80 percent of my companions use drugs at any opportunity, and a significant percentage have done time.
I ask my friendly vendor, “Do you know this petition increases money for cops, increases time for drug offenses?”
“So what? You don’t got to believe anything, just sign it.”
I ask Jim the bum what the deal is.
“They get seven bucks for every completed page. He’s always got four or five different petitions. They work this spot every day.”
9:30 a.m. I wish Jim a happy bloodletting, walk out into sunshine. A half-block away, three men assume primate hunker position against side wall of Hong Kong Night Club.
STOP THE PRESSES! BIG SCORE!!
Find 20 cents in change tray of phone booth. Can now report hard-money profits.
San Diego has an overload of bums, not as bad as San Francisco or L.A., but more than the natural environment can hold. Bum residents talk to each other as they make their daily rounds: Horton Plaza to blood bank to a mission to liquor store to park to blood bank. They pass along encouragements to each other. “How’s the day going? What’s going on? I’m going to.…”
Lots of “goings.”
9:47 a.m. On vigil in front of U.S. Grant again. Horton Plaza is partially recycled, only seven or eight of this morning’s gang remain. Hand a bum my camera. He snaps two pictures, price: two cigarettes.
Attempt, successfully, to do the bum sneakwalk down Broadway. Cruise historic Greyhound Bus Station, spare-changing as I go. Pickwick Hotel, Immigration and Passport ID photos. I stop in Deasia’s Kitchen for breakfast and newspaper. I pass on the Plowhand, the Farmhand, the Rancher breakfast, go for the Almost Eggs Benedict. Front-page story in L.A. Times on begging says — it’s a problem. Bill: $6.65, plus a dollar tip.
Christ, just a terrific gale wind outside, really cold. Arctic wind attacks the nape of my neck, my wrists, ankles. Feel as if I’ve always been cold, will always be cold. Imprisoned by cold. Recall most hideous cold experience. Feel worse.
Have decided to try Frank’s legendary jackpot spot. Am now at work in festive waterfront location across from Holiday Inn. ALERT! Bogey at 4 o’clock. It’s a herd of ACPC name tags. Forty elderly tourists disembark from tour bus, everyone sporting name tag featuring the logo “ACPC.” Hit on each visitor. Uncommonly depressed by endless barrage of ill-feeling as multitude marches past, not a dime.
Begging is boring. Begging is humiliating. Begging is demeaning. No wonder beggars get fucked up when they do it. The idea of a midmorning beer begins to tug at my pleasure center. Oops, here comes Sundance Stage Lines with a full load of carefree, happy vacationers. Stand by coach door, eager to welcome all to San Diego. Beg each passenger as they exit. Receive extreme gestures of discontent.
Sitting in gale-force winds, on cement park bench, flossing my teeth. What is it that makes people walk around in public with signs on their chests? What is it that puts the roundness in circles? Where do babies come from?
11:30 a.m. Hauling down the flag; this ain’t making it. Wander into Holiday Inn for a phone. Pay phones tied up by covey of blue suits and red ties. Wait them out, call Yellow Cab. Ten minutes later cabbie appears. “Where to?”
“I’ve been waiting for you all day.”
Twenty-four bucks, with tip.
Dismount at Prospect and Girard. This has to be better begging turf. Providentially, there isn’t another bum in sight. First contact, first La Jolla artifact is new Jaguar with vanity plates, “OUR JAG.”
Here we are walking Prospect Street in exclusive, trendy La Jolla. On our immediate right is tasteful Grubb & Ellis Real Estate window. Today’s Grubb offerings: “Beautiful new townhouse. Three bedrooms, 2.5 baths, $399,000. Two-bedroom, two-bath traditional American home, $1,600,000. La Jolla Shores. Contemporary Mediterranean masterpiece overlooking the Pacific. Four bedroom, four and a half baths, $2,595,000.”
Okay, La Jolla base camp erected across from La Valencia Hotel, the Red Lobster, and Aloha Louie’s. A strong triple threat. Triple threat dissolves within minutes. Am shooed away by hotel employee.
1:00 p.m. Stake out C.J. Charles, Ltd., Jewelers and Gifts. Am well placed on cement planter. Shoppers, 90 percent women, patrol area streets and stores. “Spare change. Thirty cents for the poor.” Am met with universal, sphincter-tightening disgust. It’s pure nonverbal communication. Direct telegram from their message center to mine. “Christ, I’ve finally made it to La Jolla, finally clawed my way into enough money to belong here, and this lice-ridden creature is clouding my shopping experience.”
1:15. Big moment. Scored a quarter. Can I get a witness? White young guy, maybe 20 years old, with big frosty shades exiting his BMW. “Spare a quarter?” He hesitates. I pounce. “Just a quarter. It helps America’s economy. Keeps the wheels turning. Giving is low overhead and fun too.” Wretched yuppie swine produces a smirk and then, by God, reaches into his right pocket, withdraws a quarter, flips it toward me. Bingo, first blood.
Moving to Silverado and Girard. Here’s a rack of newspapers: L.A. Times, San Diego Tribune, Wall Street Journal, real estate rags, the Learning Annex, and the Sun, with its screaming headline, “Very Attractive White Girl — Married — Does You In Front Of Her Husband.” I pick up a copy.
Set up my lemonade stand in front of the Banana Republic. Amazing, I already miss my bums downtown. I miss protective cover, miss soul mates to play with. I’m just standing around, all alone, nobody to talk to, lonely little outcast. Long for my comrades. Long for some, any, human contact.
When panhandling, you play faces, screen obvious jerks, play the most likely benefactors. So of course, the nicest people get hit on most. The tiniest shred of openness, kindness, serenity is unmistakable invitation to come dance with me.
1:30 p.m. Driven off the streets by profound depression into Hard Rock Cafe, La Jolla. Legend on window, also behind bar, “Save the Planet.” Two beers, $4.50.
Outside, a crew takes fashion photos. Old guy on a stepladder working huge camera. Two male models, standard mannequin-issue, one black, one white. Shocked to see Sears catalogue faces in real life. Mannequin A has blue shirt, slacks. Mannequin B has white striped shirt, blue slacks. Both wearing tennies. The world is tennis shoes. Three or four female assistants scurry back and forth brushing makeup, straightening shirts. Photographer’s constant rap, “That’s good, that’s good, keep it moving, keep involved, keep it flowing.” Two models babble mindless verbiage to keep their mouths in motion for boss man. I spare-change crew, clutching my “Attractive White Girl Does You In Front Of Her Husband.” No luck.
2:17 p.m. Major, major score. Huge success. Unbelievable payday. Am at my mantra, “Spare change. Spare change.” A middle-aged man wearing a seedy brown suit passes, turns full circle, comes back, gives me 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 cents, says, “Are you that bad off?”
“Just one step away,” which I now know, in the darkest back alley of my soul, is precisely the way it is. I now know with the clarity of a nightmare that I hang by the smallest thread, one bad break from the street.
He gets to his back pocket, pulls out a dollar bill, hands it over. I’m overwhelmed, thrilled, I ask his name. He says Judd. We shake hands. Buddies for life. I actually hop up and down. Judd reveals, “Listen, I’m pretty close myself.” By this time I am bum, that’s my life, whatever I had before is just tissue, just paper tissue memories. Maybe, somewhere in that dream-haze was a job, friends, but that was another time, another life. I reassure Judd, “You’ll make it.”
2:30 p.m. First bum sighted in La Jolla. He won’t talk to me. I jovially call out, “Hey, partner, how ya doing?” He swerves, walks away.
2:47 p.m. Gray Line tour bus chugs down Prospect. Driver spiels into his mike. I shout, “Spare change.” Pantomime eating — spooning a bowl of gruel — this interspersed with outreached hand, capped by whiny, pleading voice.
3:20 p.m. Jesus, almost unendurable. Maybe 300 people today. Maybe 3 have actually looked at me. Two have spoken to me. Being here is like being in an outdoor solitary confinement cell. Less than a day begging, am lonely, soul lonely, lonely as a Martian on Pluto. It just takes a single dose of relentless, uniform rejection, just a few hours of being treated like revolting, despised thing, until I start to believe, start to fall into the pit. Scary.
4:00 p.m. Have sounded full retreat. Am at the Spot for a beer, now utterly defeated. Wall Street Journal over urinal.
5 p.m. End of the work day, catch a 24-dollar cab back to Horton Plaza. Ah, home again. I’ve missed it. And over there, on a park bench, is Jim the bum. Good Lord, he’s family now. “Jim, bro, how’s it going?”
“How was La Jolla?”
“Great. Tremendous territory.”
“How much did you make?”
“A dollar forty-nine.”
Jim the bum rolls his eyes.
I invite Jim for a day’s-end beer. We step into a Broadway bar. The establishment appears to be local bum headquarters. Three or four bums collect at one end of the bar. On my left is an alkie-faced, middle-aged male. His soft, plump body melts onto a bar stool. His name is Dwight; he’s a bankruptcy lawyer, already ripped.
It’s nice to be back among friends.