My first encounter with the displaced was in the summer of 1980 at the end of the trolley line in San Francisco. He was an angry man. An evangelist for the apocalypse. Grizzled with a mossy beard, in tattered clothes, a stringent voice and fiery eyes. He yelled at the trolley as it rounded the corner, shaking his fist. He wasn’t after money. He wanted to save our souls. He looked a lot like the fellow below.
Yesterday, I chatted with a displaced woman outside my local Walgreen’s. This particular store is a magnet for the displaced. There are the de-institutionalized mentally ill. Street people. Panhandlers. Scam artists. Vets. Beggars.
She was a beggar with no save-the-world agenda. She was bold, asking not for a quarter or change but for $5. She asked with a straight face as she crouched on the sidewalk.
I’ve gotten where I can filter the scam artists from the genuine beggar, the dispossessed. I usually stare at the scam artist, daring them to approach. When they do, I let them tell their story to see what new, convoluted tale emerges, to check their creativity index, to look for loopholes. Sometimes, I skip that step and just say no.
The Walgreen’s woman was genuine. In Florida, street people bear a ruddy complexion, the result of unfiltered sun exposure and unwashed dirt. This is probably true for the displaced in most cities. Her face was a scalded skin. She had no teeth. Under a grey wool cap were fringes of yellow and grey hair, curling strands with a certain volume or starchiness from accumulated oil.
I wanted to listen to this woman who dared to ask for $5.
What will you do with the money?
Buy a hamburger, baked potato and frostie.
Really? You can get all that for $5?
Yes, at Wendy’s.
The nearest Wendy’s was a mile away. It was 4:45 in the afternoon and sundown was about an hour away. The temperatures were dropping already. I tried to imagine this old woman walking to the fast food joint,making it there before the dusk drained all the warmth from the air. I wondered if she went to the drive-thru window. No, she probably would go inside, take her time with her meal, take advantage of the climate controlled dining. And then what? Where would she go?
Where do the homeless go at night?
I’ve wondered this a few times, mostly after a meeting with a Walgreen’s beggar. There’s a long lane just outside the store that dead ends at the expressway. It’s got a few trees and shrubs. I imagine there’s a spot there.
Not all beggars are homeless or helpless or hapless.
The street corner beggar, the one that took her stand every weekday at 5:30pm, just as the hordes of cars emptied downtown, she was not helpless. This woman angered me. It was her style. She simpered. Held out her hand and mumbled in a pitying voice as she walked right up to my car window. She was there, Monday through Friday, at the exact spot. I’d roll up my window and give her a dirty look. Or I’d take the easy route and stare ahead, making her whiny visage invisible.
One Sunday, I saw her in the parking lot of Winn Dixie. She was not begging. No, she was laughing freely as she pushed a buggy heaped with groceries. Her posture was erect. Her tattered sweater was exchanged for public clothing, the kind worn by people who have a job. I watched as she opened her car door, unpacked the bags of groceries and drove away with her friend.
At that time, I had just lost my full-time job of nine years. My application for food stamps had been denied. I was driving a ten-year old car and wondering how to gather my next mortgage payment.
I was not contemplating the economic benefit of begging.
A year later, as I chatted with the Walgreen’s woman, the prospect of being a homeless beggar was distinct. How would I fare? What night time home could I find? What storyline would I pitch?
These aren’t idle questions. Even though I sit in a home with all the benefits of civilization, I recognize that dispossession is a possibility. So I look at my street people with a sharpened sense of reality, with an almost identity.