Homeless for the Holiday

Photo by Tom Gibson. Reprinted with the permission of The Gulf Coast Gabber, Inc.
By Cathy Salustri

“Do you need blankets?” The black woman in the late-model SUV held out a dollar bill and, as I approached her to take it and stuff it in my McDonald’s cup, tried to make eye contact with me.
“No, I’m OK,” I mumbled, unable to meet her kind gaze. Yet she persisted.
“Are you sure? How about clothes?” Again, I told her I was OK. She gave up, adding, “Well, I go down to Williams Park sometimes, and if you ever see my truck there, please take what you need.”
She smiled goodbye at me as I thanked her; the light turned green and she drove away. My eyes followed her tan Ford, then turned to the bench by St. Mary’s where a real homeless man curled up and tried to sleep.
I have a home and a job, but nonetheless I stood on the corner of 4th Street and 5th Avenue South, hand-lettered cardboard sign in hand, trying to find out what it was like to beg on a street corner.
When my editor first suggested the idea to me, I agreed, but put it off as long as possible, avoiding the assignment because I assumed real homeless people would harass me, the police might arrest me, and I would get taunted by drivers. His perseverance finally won out, so two weeks before Christmas I donned my scummiest clothes, ripped a piece from a cardboard box, scrawled “Homeless- Please help”, and drove my scooter to downtown St. Pete.
St. Petersburg doesn’t have laws against panhandling, and you can see evidence of that on many street corners. This corner, however, appeared empty when I parked by the church and walked around the back to make it appear as though I had come from anywhere other than my vehicle.
By the time I got to the corner, a man stood there, his hands gripping a thin cardboard sign that simply said “HOMELESS”. I hesitated; I didn’t want a confrontation. As I tried to decide if I could stand on the opposite corner without causing a confrontation, he interrupted me.
“You want to work this corner?” He had to say it twice; anticipating hostility, his benevolence caught me off guard.
“Yeah, but you were here first.” He had a new Florida Blood Services Cap on and clean-ish jeans, and I automatically assumed he had a home. The notion of working street corners as a scam has occurred to me before; the idea of getting conned keeps my windows rolled up when I pass someone holding a sign proclaiming themselves homeless.
“Give me ten minutes, just ten minutes, OK?” I nodded and walked over to the cement pillar that welcomed people to St. Petersburg, leaned against it, and considered my options.
“Don’t go away!” he called out, so, more out of curiosity than any real expectation that he would give up his corner, I hung around. True to his word, a few minutes later, he walked over to me, battered knapsack in hand, and I got my first good look at him.
His jeans weren’t clean as I first thought; rather, they were meticulously cared for- as though someone had folded them carefully and taken great care to try and keep them clean. His shirt gave no appearance of having seen a washing machine in recent memory. Around his neck he wore dog tags and a large silver and black cross. His dark eyes looked resigned but not vacant or crazy, as I expected, and his skin had a gray, mottled undertone. He spoke softly.
“OK, let’s see how you do.” And with that, he went across the street, curled up on a bench, and left me to my street corner. I held my sign over my chest and stood as cars whooshed by me.
Worrying about people taunting me faded as I grasped the reality of the situation: the moment I held up my sign, I became invisible, a non-person. People looked through me and avoided my eyes. On the off chance they had to stop for a red light, drivers became inexplicably engrossed in setting the clock in their car, digging in their glove box, or making a cell phone call.
After five minutes, I stopped wanting to make eye contact with people. Despite my internal reminders that I had a home and didn’t beg money for a living, I devolved into a sub-person, on the fringe of a society determined to exclude me. I felt the total and complete exclusion from people who drove by me, on their way to warm homes or holiday parties. On another day, I might see these people, exchange pleasantries with them in line at the bank or smile at them at the grocery store, but at that moment, I ceased to exist for them.
Reminding myself that they were no better than me stopped working as I started to get irritated at the flagrant displays of consumerism coupled with the blatant disregard for my written plea for help. BMW’s, Nokia cell phones, and diamond rings all whizzed by me. No one stopped. Awkwardly aware that the day before I was one of these people, someone who looked anywhere but at the people holding up a sign, I got angry at the people driving past.
Then a pickup truck stopped; the driver rolled down his window. I didn’t understand at first until the driver held out his hand. As I approached, he said, “All I have is change”, almost apologetically.
Next the lady in the SUV pulled up and offered me blankets; a few other cars stopped and gave me a dollar here and there.
Somewhere in this time, the man who had given me his corner woke up and crossed the street again. As he approached me, I noticed he carried a t-shirt and a loaf of bread.
“You seem like a nice lady,” he said. I smiled at him, not sure what to say in return. He told me his name: Patrick. He served in Viet Nam.
“I want you to have this t-shirt,” he continued, holding out a blue t-shirt that proclaimed me a volunteer donor for Florida Blood Services. “It’s new and it’s never been worn. I gave blood today and they gave it to me, but I want you to have it.”
“I can’t take your shirt. I mean, thank you, really, but I can’t… don’t you need it?”
“You take it” and he shoved the shirt towards me, and I, torn between taking clothing I do not need from a homeless man and insulting his kindness, finally take the shirt and mumble “thank you”.
“I have some bread,” he says, showing me the loaf of Publix bread “would you like to break bread with me?”
I thank him, sincerely grateful, but draw the line at taking a homeless man’s food. I lie and say I’ve been ill and don’t feel like eating. He nods and says “I’m gonna go eat this over here so you can still make money.” And he walks away.
After he finishes eating, he comes back over to me.
“I live behind there,” he says, gesturing toward the welcome pillar “and I have three blankets. If you need a place to sleep, I won’t bother you or molest you or nothing. The medicine they give me… well, it makes me impotent, so you don’t have to worry about that. I won’t bother you.”
As I start to thank him, I see another man walking towards us. He has a bedroll, glasses, and seems upset by my presence. He starts walking towards me and yelling, but Patrick physically intercedes, getting between us and putting his hand on the guy’s shoulder.
“No, no, it’s OK, she’s a nice lady, really. Let’s go behind there and talk for a few minutes.” He steers the newcomer to his “house”, where they disappear.
My amazement stuns me into absolute silence and guilt; I barely mutter a thank you to the next few cars who stop and give me a dollar.
The last car that stops for me has seen better days. It has rust creeping around its corners, and the white paint dates back to Clinton’s presidency. A baby sleeps in a car seat. The lady inside rolls down her window and reaches into her wallet and hands me a wad of cash that I am too embarrassed to count.
As she pulls away, Patrick calls out to me a final time.
“Ma’am? It’s my turn. I’ve been good about this, but you’ve made your money.”
“Yeah, it’s my turn, I just got out of the hospital,” the other man chimes in. I had planned on staying until the sun set, but I will not argue with him. I feel sick at the idea of moving on to another corner, so instead I gather up my cup and my sign and walk across the street, making a roundabout return to my scooter.
As I do, I see a discarded heel of bread, leftover from Patrick’s supper. I nudge it with my toe. It has the consistency of limestone.
I return home and count my earnings. $17.50 for an hour’s time, all of which will go to St. Vincent De Paul’s soup kitchen. The woman in the beat up car with the baby gave me nine dollars, which I suspect was all she had.
I want to rush back to the corner and give it all to Patrick. I want to find these kind people and give their money back and apologize for misleading them.
But I do none of these things. Instead, I wash my face, change clothes, and head down to Gulfport Elementary to take photos of the Winter Celebration.
A little boy ringing jingle bells sings earnestly to a room full of warm, laughing people. His antics interrupt my reverie, and I laugh along with them.
And then my mind flashes back to Patrick, cars whizzing past him as he huddles on a bench, waiting his turn.
The Gabber gave the money collected to St. Vincent de Paul.

The St. Pete Times: “A Fair and Balanced” Look at Dual Referendum

Read today’s Letters to the Editor in the St. Petersburg Times, then please consider what a recent Google search revealed:

Author #1: Robert Prescott (Tarpon Springs) has a long history of writing letters to the Times, which the Times seems happy to publish because he pisses enough people off that they respond. Although he talks about how the County won’t take over and limit cities, this community activist has advocated consolidating police forces under the PCSD. So although he cries impartial and simply outraged at the City’s actions, seems like he has an agenda. Which, since they printed the other stuff I just mentioned, it seems the Times knows.

Author #2: Jim Harpham (Palm Harbor) sat on Pinellas County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2005 Citizen’s Advisory Committee. He, too, seems to be repeat letter writer to the Times and gets the same response as Prescott.

Author#3: Larry Weglarz (Tarpon Springs) A Pinellas County Sheriff’s Detective. Gee, he doesn’t mention that in his letter. He works for the County? Hmmmm.

Author #4: Ray Neri, (“Lealman”) is the head of Lealman’s Community Association. Going back to my tenure with the County, he attended and participated in a ton of public meetings. He’s a citizen’s advocate for Lealman, and the County has “worked” with him on many task forces, committees, and projects. This man knows the Commissioners better than their wives and husbands do.

My point is that with the POSSIBLE exception of Prescott, these are not ordinary citizens like you and I expressing their beliefs in print. They are all tied to the County, although only one of them gets a paycheck proper from the County (of course, the deputy doesn’t get a Board of County Commissioners paycheck)

Of course, I would never suggest that the County has asked them to write these letters. And I certainly would not suggest that the Times’ reporting and selection of letters to the editor embodies anything other than the stellar reporting we have all come to expect from the St. Petersburg Times. In fact, it’s exactly what I expect from them.

But ask yourself… with all the public input opposing eliminating the dual referendum at recent meetings, isn’t it odd that not one of those vocal advocates has had a letter printed in the Times? Now, I’m not suggesting that the Times has chosen not to print them. I’m sure it’s just that those against eliminating the dual referendum merely realize the folly of expressing their opinions to the Times.

Yeah, that must be it.

Broadcast Journalism At Its Finest?

I love Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. Just watched an episode (on iTunes, don’t worry, I haven’t let the newfound financial freedom of owning just one home go to my head and subscribed to cable or anything) where he absolutely tears apart Fox and CNN for using question marks in their news tags to pretend they’re not blatantly trying to sway public opinion (if you have a private opinion, does it matter?).

Nothing else to say, just wanted to let you all know that I, the least political person you will ever meet (hey, is there something going on in Lebanon or the Middle East or something?) thinks this is some of the finest dreck on TV.

I mean, since Friends went off the air and all…

And Darwin Spins In His Grave.

Survival of the Weakest

As a former landlord, this bothers me. There’s a story in the Times about a disabled man about to get evicted because he was a lousy tenant.

Seems the law protects disabled people from eviction. Apparently you cannot evict someone who is disabled unless, according to our (insert sarcasm HERE) local paper of record “unless they pose a threat to others”. So you don’t have to pay rent and you can stay? You can pay late? You can trash the place? Harass your landlord? As long as no one worries about their safety around you, your landlord has to let you live there while he or she pays the mortgage?

Hell, this makes the whole debate over whether to teach Darwin in the schools moot. We’re breeding survival of the fittest out of the species, so in a few hundred years there won’t be anything to teach.

I can feel some of you getting indignant. Whatever. It’s not my responsibility to take care of ANYONE but me, Mad Dog, and Scrubfy. Hell, I won’t even feed the kittens that have made my yard their home. But wait, they all have six toes, so maybe they’re disabled. Does that mean I have a legal obligation to feed them and let them stay or that I’m criminally negligent if I don’t?

Look, it’s not that I don’t have empathy for people with obvious disabilities. But somewhere this has gotten out of hand; who’s to say that landlord is in a better position to pay that guy’s portion of the mortgage on the apartments along with maitenance and utilities than that guy? I would argue that the owner of the building may actually be less advantaged. It also bothers me that we have a disability for everything. Ok, yes, if you read the story you learn he’s deaf and blind. So was Helen Keller. I’m pretty sure the Fair Housing laws didn’t exist to help her. She didn’t have the option of leaning on anyone but her family and friends. Oh, and herself.

And I’m willing to bet that if they didn’t exist now, this guy would find a way to make it, too.

What is WRONG with white people?

This is not a racist post.
At least, I hope it doesn’t sound that way.

As many of you know, I bought and moved into a “new” (ok, it’s 80 years old) home a few months ago. As I believe I have mentioned, I am the only white person on my block. Let me just say that this does not bother me; I don’t really care who I live next to provided the cops don’t show up on my block on a regular basis (anyone remember Chez?), the music doesn’t wake me up at 3 am (anyone remember Leroy?) and I don’t own rental property on the same block (remember Frank? Pam?).

However, living in (prior to my purchase) an all-black neighborhood has opened my eyes to a few things, mostly the reasons why some black people feel that, even in this “enlightened” (insert sarcasm here) age, discrimination still exists. I can see this because, by virtue of my address, I am not privy to the same services people living in other areas of St. Petersburg have access to.

Let’s start with the mail. I have a mailbox mounted on my house (as opposed to the curbside mailboxes) with a spot for outgoing mail underneath. And soon I start to notice that on days I do not get mail, my outgoing mail doesn’t get picked up. Since I am currently undergoing a massive effort to copy as many Netflix DVD’s as possible, this bothers me. The next time I see my mailman (or mailwoman, depending on the day), I ask. She tells me that she doesn’t stop on my street unless she has mail to deliver, so the mail at my house won’t get picked up unless I have mail coming in. So much for “neither rain nor sleet nor snow” and all that crap.

But perhaps that’s a policy set by the US Postal Service; perhaps it is also in place elsewhere.

So let’s move on to trash. When I first moved in, I didn’t have a big black barrel in my yard. I called the city to get one; they said they would bring one out. A week passes- no garbage can. As my little dog, clearly traumatized by a series of moves, has taken to shitting in the house, finding a way to dispose of trash becomes a priority (June + Florida + dog poop, you do the math). I call the city back. They tell me that an inspector came out and, in my neighborhood, we all share alley trash cans. There are three for two streets.

But perhaps that happens in other areas of St. Petersburg as well.

I know someone on the St. Petersburg Police force who used to patrol an adjacent neighborhood. He had to drop something off one night. Although off duty, He would not come to my neighborhood until he stopped by the police station and got his gun. As he explained it to me- and this is a direct quote- “My area was across the street; I’m not going into my barrio without my gun.” Barrio?

But perhaps the City of St. Petersburg Police refer to Old Northeast and Roser Park (very white and very wealthy) as barrios as well; perhaps the gentleman I know won’t go there without his gun, either.

My realtor initially steered me away from this house, saying “you don’t go down there without a gun”. The selling realtor asked me “are you sure you really want to live in that neighborhood?”. Several actors I know wouldn’t come to my house for a cast party (offered only as I was stage managing and no one else would volunteer their home). Pizza Hut and Domino’s will not deliver to my neighborhood.

When you add to that the sheer number of people who have expressed shock, dismay, or issued me words of caution about this home (after two months, I haven’t had a single incident), I can see why St. Petersburg has had race riot issues in the past. I’m amazed there aren’t more, actually.

The trash can thing alone would do it for me – it’s costing me $16.35 each month for the privilege of sharing a trash can with about 20 other people. I used to work for the County utility; I know the fees. Granted, the City has to pay labor, maintain the trucks, blah blah blah, but it only costs them $37.50 to get rid of a ton of garbage at the County’s waste-to-energy facility. The County also once calculated that the average person throws out five pounds of garbage a day. That means, over a 30 day period, I throw out 150 pounds of trash. That costs the City about $2.81 in disposal. That means the other 82% goes for… what, exactly? Administrative costs? Plus, I’ve lived in other cities where we all had our own city-supplied cans and it cost much less. I’ll pay it, I have no choice (can you say “regulated monopoly”, anyone?), but give me my own damn can.

The point is, it seems like I get services of diminished quality living here. Now, people will argue that my neighborhood brings in less tax money (lower property values, for now) for the City, so why focus on providing quality services? I would answer that tax value has NOTHING to do with my trash bill, NOTHING to do with the USPS, and NOTHING to do with pizzas, attitudes, or other “little things”. I would also argue that many homes on my street are rentals, so they’re getting MORE tax money because of fewer homestead exemptions.

If I was REALLY in a mood, I would also answer that a relatively recently desegregated Pinellas County has only recently -VERY recently- made a point to improve the schools on the south side (the “black” side; forgive the wording, it’s not mine… thanks to my ex inlaws for that phrasing), so how the HELL are black people raised in Pinellas County supposed to have a fair shake at a decent job that would move them out of the low income areas? Don’t throw the affirmative action bullshit in my face; at a minimum, people “of color” schooled in Pinellas County are competing with OTHER people of color schooled in areas of the nation (DC, New York, etc., etc.) where they actually had (I’m assuming) decent teachers, history textbooks that did NOT use the phrase “War of Northern Aggression”, and literature courses that didn’t use Gone With The Wind as the cornerstone of their curriculum.

I can deal with people’s ignorance (well, I can ignore it or make them feel stupid, at the very least), but the services thing is there every time I take out the trash, return a Netflix DVD, or want a pizza. At least I just see it because of where I live; how much worse would it be if I never knew whether it was an issue of where I lived or my skin color, and knowing even then that it didn’t matter which it was because the two were really the same?

I feel better, for now. Thanks for listening.