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.