March 10, 2006

On bums: 1 and 2 are the loneliest numbers. I have proof.

I work in a very bum-friendly part of town. (I recognize "bum" is probably not the politically correct term, but I'm going with it, as there's no one to ask what IS PC at this hour, and basically fuck it, anyway). Pioneer Square is, by any standard, the very best place for a Pacific Northwest bum to live, outside of Portland Oregon, which is the transient capital of the world.

It has everything: plenty of shelter, lots of restaurant dumpsters, free bus rides, year-round Japanese tourists, and multiple on/off ramps to highways and freeways at which to post up and beg. Plus, the weather is mild and there are drugs to be found in every alleyway, if you're in to that sort of thing.

When I first began working in the area, I determined that when dealing with bums, one has three options, which I will list in order of popularity:

Option 1: Feel uncomfortable, and act like it. Do not make eye contact with bums or respond when they speak to you. In effect, pretend they are inanimate objects. Be paralyzed by your fear and discomfort around them. Avoid dealing. (Most popular choice).

Option 2: Be disgusted or offended by them, and act like it. Sneer. Say helpful things like "get a job", or "change? why? so you can buy beer with it?", either to them, or loudly, just after you pass them. Be intimidated and angered by your inability to decide whether you feel sorry for them or you are threatened by them or you hate them. Refer to them as junkies, nobodies, trash or freaks. In effect, kick them when they're down. (Second most popular choice).

Option 3: Start out doing #1, then become exhausted by the constant judging and labeling and cowering, and make friends with them instead. (My eventual choice).

A note: Though neither 1'S or 2's typically make eye contact or acknowledge the actual person on the street, they always always read the sign, if the bum is holding one. I know... used to be a 1. What it ultimately comes down to, I think, is that while the person holding the sign wants something from you, the sign is giving something away. To look someone in the eye is to give them something. 1's and 2's aren't very in to the giving of things to bums. But reading the sign lets them take, and from a distance. Much more comfortable. Much less personal.


I met Spike shortly after deciding to be a 3. He approached me just outside the Seattle Art Museum one night while I was waiting, alone and in the rain, for my bus. He introduced himself. We shook hands. He told me he was homeless. Then, he asked me if he could tell me one joke. He said if I let him that he wouldn't bother me ever again. I told him he wasn't bothering me and that I could use a good joke. This is what he said:

Spike: "What do OJ Simpson and a lion have in common?"
Me: "Dunno... what?"
Spike: "Well, lions come from Africa, right?"
Me: "Sure. Yeah."
Spike: "And OJ Simpson is a lyin African."

I paused. And then, I laughed. Hard. Yeah, it's not funny. I know. But I liked what he was doing. It was his schtick. It was his differentiator from everyone else on the street that night. The joke was his Unique Selling Point.

And he knew it. After I stopped laughing, he said "Well, you gotta do somethin' to get by. You gotta do somethin', you know?". I knew. I gave him an apple and 3 bucks. He's been telling me jokes ever since. He calls me "Pollyanna". Or "sista". I don't know why. I'm not a blonde 8 year old or a sista, but I like it anyway.

Knowing Spike ended up coming in handy one night when I was on the street in Pioneer Square with a girlfriend looking for a bar. It was late, we couldn't find it, and a creepy man kept following us, putting his hood up and talking nonsense. I was sure he was going to kill us. But then Spike showed up. He got rid of the dude and walked us right to the door of the place we were looking for. Dropped us off like a gentleman. I think he probably prevented my fingers and toes from ending up in assorted gutters around the city or our skins from being turned into a coat.


I met "Smile" at the same place he stands every evening: right at the viaduct offramp at First next to the Starbucks.

Smile's Unique Selling Point? His sign.

It's cardboard, and about 2 feet square, and he holds it up all day long, standing in that one spot, where every car coming off the highway and every pedestrian on the street can read it.

Smile only really says three things: "Thank you", "Bless you", and "Beautiful". He says these things when you give him what he's asking for. It isn't money. Sure, he'll thank you for that, too, and ultimately that's why he's there, but doesn't ask for it outright. He knows there are way too many 1's and 2's out there for that. And I think ultimately he wants something more than money, anyway. So with his sign he asks for what he wants, and he thanks you when you give it to him. This is because if you do what he asks, you've made a "deposit" (regardless of if you dropped change into his cup).

My friend Smile gets the 1's and 2's where they least expect it, and where he's recognized they always look: his sign.

Of course by now you know what it says, scrawled in black sharpie:


Smile is the richest bum in Seattle.


emynd said...

Blah, I feel manipulated. Me smiling at the end was so predictable but I still smiled. Blah.

Trebuchet said...

Aaah. He got you too, huh? Don't feel bad... you have an excuse.

The lack of sleep has clearly made you emotional.