By Max R. Weller
After living here as a homeless man continuously since February of 2008 (I first visited in February of 2007 for about three months), and never stooping to street-corner begging or frequenting any of the free giveaway venues for homeless people in Boulder, CO, I finally decided to learn about “flying a sign” firsthand last September. In retrospect, I’m amazed that I lived as well as I did for 2 1/2 years without income from any source (no SSDI/SSI monthly benefits, no Colorado AND and food stamps, etc.).
What prompted me most of all was my anger at a couple of ne’er-do-wells, Frank the Hoser and his Denver crackhead girlfriend (see previous blog entries about both), who tried to take over the corner in north Boulder which had been occupied for years by a well-known local panhandler. More than once, disputes involving these three arose which required the intervention of deputies from Boulder County Sheriff’s Office; the longtime panhandler was taken away in handcuffs because of his intoxicated condition, to either detox or jail. It galled me that Frank, not even homeless and the owner of an old pickup, would apparently win out here. So, sober as I was, I decided to occupy this corner and let Frank try to “front” me.
Eventually, I won out, and I’m the primary beggar there to this day.
In the beginning, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of money, food, and other useful items donated by passersby. I knew that some Boulder panhandlers’ wild stories of making hundreds of dollars a day were plain horse****. These claims are typically made by the drunkest fools you’ll see, and I’ve seen them stagger back and forth on a corner making only a few bucks in several hours. Most drivers, to their great credit, have enough sense not to contribute to the alcoholism of anyone who is obviously under the influence.
It was younger men and older women who gave to me generously at first. A $1 or $2 donation was the usual amount then, and I might have averaged making the hourly minimum wage — plus receiving the ubiquitous granola bars, which the squirrels at our Main Library seem to enjoy a lot. As time passed I became a familiar face to drivers, and the older men and younger women also began chipping in. Some passersby became regular donors, and I began seeing $5, $10, and even $20 bills. What’s remarkable to me is the joyful expression on the faces of these folks, who apparently understand that the funds I’m receiving are going to pay for the necessities of life like food, clothing, laundry, bus fare, etc. — and not one red cent from me will go into the pockets of the dope dealer or the liquor store owner.
On Thanksgiving Day, I made a record (for me) of $97 in about five hours. Then on December 23rd, I made $102 in about the same amount of time. The next day was Christmas Eve: $339 in only 4 1/2 hours, including a single donation of two $100 bills from a gentleman I’ve known since 2008.
Such amounts of money have enabled me to buy new clothes from head to foot, a new backpack and sleeping bag, other useful gear, a monthly bus pass, a room in a motel on especially bitter cold nights, and best of all I’m now able to donate funds to local worthy causes like Boulder County Cares, Attention Homes, and Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. Wal-Mart and these nonprofits alike love me . . .
Not me, but reasonably close in appearance
Part 2 follows:
After the Holiday Season, the donations dropped back to about an hourly minimum wage level, for which I’m just as grateful. Those $1 and $2 amounts add up over time. Two days ago, however, I sat on my corner for three hours and made only $3 — but I have patience. Yesterday, in my first hour, a youthful-looking gentleman handed me a folded $20 bill; as I put it directly into my pocket as I do with all cash donations, I could tell there was another bill inside. I figured it was a one or maybe a five, whatever this kindly man had handy, and I’d count it later on at my campsite – but then I felt compelled to take it out of my pocket and look . . . Inside the folded twenty was a $100 bill! It seems to me that my humble manner of begging (remaining seated due to an arthritic hip which needs replacement and really limits my mobility), allowing those who wish to do so to approach me with their verbal good wishes or donations of any kind, is really well-received by 99% of passersby. Much more so than the aggressive antics of panhandlers like Frank the Hoser and his ilk. Often, I’ve noticed drivers come to a stop at the red light and think about it for a few moments, then they’ll reach for their wallet/purse or simply roll down their window to ask me how I’m doing; if I were one of these clowns dancing down the line of cars and waving an oversize sign in people’s faces, I’d be missing out on a lot, not to mention p***ing folks off.
This is my sign, about 6″ x 9″:
If you can
It’s not at all my intention to distract drivers from the road in front of them. They can see me and read my sign at a glance, and easily choose to ignore both.
It’s not all about money, or food like an entire quiche from Lucky’s Market that one lady gave to me (maple bacon, cheddar cheese, and scallions — excellent!), either. I truly enjoy the hours of casual contact with Real People from the Real World. So much of what any homeless person like me has to endure in the so-called homeless community (our own little ghetto) is just crap, and many times we homeless people are our own worst enemies.
I love my corner for its wonderful view of the Flatirons to the south and open country to the east and north. Frequently, I watch the hawks soaring above or the pesky foxes making their rounds (the latter are also looking for “donations”). Clouds here at this high elevation in Colorado are so much closer than back in Missouri, it makes for some really interesting observation.
I love the occasional encounters I have with very young children, under the watchful eyes of their mothers. After I became known to regular passersby, one day a lady stopped and told me that her 3-year-old daughter wanted to give me a wildflower she had picked on their hike earlier. This pretty young lady was in her car seat in back of Mom’s car, of course, so Mom actually was the one to hand me that lovely bloom. Worth more than $100 to me, much more! Another time, a lady I know from her job at our Main Library, and who happens to live nearby with her family, came walking up to my corner. Mom stayed back as her young daughter approached me with a $5 bill and a big smile . . . Mom then came up and told me that her child had said to her, “I wish I could give him a house.” She was about five or maybe six years old, I’m guessing, and was too shy to say that to me herself. I swear that her sentiment alone is worth more than all of the cash I’ve received in my brief time as a beggar. After all, you can’t buy good will and real love at any price; it must be given freely.
A beggar asks for help . . .
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
My thinking on the subject of panhandling here in Boulder, CO has been evolving over the past few months. See these blog entries from the past:
If I were to write this today, it might be titled “Please don’t give cash to panhandlers, unless you can trust that they’re clean and sober”. Many times, what a beggar wants is not what that beggar needs; use your own good judgment. During the Holiday Season, I saw passersby handing out heavy pairs of socks stuffed with hygiene items and Hershey’s Miniatures — a great donation to any beggar, drunk or sober. A few kind words of concern is also a big boost to the beggar’s spirit.
Written now, this might be titled “Boulder’s beggars, buskers, and vendors of the Denver Voice newspaper should be licensed”. Perhaps $25 would be a more reasonable license fee, with the proceeds being used by the City of Boulder to help support the emergency warming centers operated by Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow. (And based on my own experience, I think it’s extremely unlikely that any beggar, busker, or DV vendor here would ever make enough cash to be required to file an income tax return). This license fee would accomplish two things:
1) It would be a way for the those homeless people who engage in these enterprises to give back to society, especially if the revenue is spent as I indicate above;
2) It would give the City of Boulder enforcement power to get rid of the troublemakers who loiter on street corners to no good purpose (making $20 and immediately running to the liquor store or dope dealer is NOT a good purpose).
What is a beggar’s job, exactly? The beggar is a living illustration, for everyone in our society, of the fact that the American Dream has fallen short for many citizens for a variety of reasons; physical disability or mental illness, lack of education or training, poor life skills, job loss and the economic downturn, racism or sexism, etc.
Here’s a good place to remark on the generosity of blue-collar workers, a.k.a. “the working poor”. As a group, I’ve found them to be more willing to help with cash, food, or other useful items than those who are much more secure financially. And if they don’t have anything to give, they’ll smile and wave to this Boulder beggar. At first, this surprised me. Then, after some thought, I realized that these folks have genuine empathy for the poor person they see on the corner.
Also worth remarking on, I think, is the apparent coldhearted nature of Boulder’s legion of spandex-clad pro cycling wannabes. I’d have thought that folks so very lucky, as to be able to bicycle all day long, would be quite willing to reach out to those less fortunate. This is NOT the case at my corner, where scores if not hundreds of cyclists pass on a daily basis. For each cyclist who has handed me a granola bar, there have been at least fifty laborers who have given me all kinds of donations. If the squirrels at our Main Library had to depend on the cyclists for their sustenance, they’d be furry bags of bones instead of such fat and happy critters . . .
Yes, I’ve encountered the rare knucklehead who will shout out, “Get a f***ing job!” Without exception in my experience, these are well-groomed, upper middle-class white guys driving newer vehicles, probably headed to a nice home and a loving family. Not one would be willing to trade places with me, not even for a day. So why the bitter feeling? I chalk it up to the higher proportion of mentally ill people from all walks of life living here in Boulder, CO and its environs. I don’t dwell on it; when I’m twenty years older and still more senile, it’s that wonderful little girl I wrote about in Part 2 whom I’ll remember.
What does the future hold for this Homeless Philosopher/Boulder beggar? We shall see . . .
Definitely not me, appearance-wise
(Originally published on March 4, 2011).