Reprinted with the permission of The Gabber Newspaper.
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 10 minutes, just 10 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.