Outside on the porch, Seattle’s morning fog flowed up Beacon Hill. Betty, the other squatters, and I drank beer. My shaky, alcohol-deprived hands held a razor blade to cut the left side of a cardboard cube into a flat rectangle. Paper dust scattered in the breeze. By noon the mist would burn off, and the sky would be blue and filled with light. What better day to fly our newest sign?
Homelessness begets shamelessness. The art of begging for money is multifaceted. Omnipresent cardboard boxes are free for the taking, and from a single side of a box one can fashion a sign declaring his homelessness and need for your spare change and singles. Black Sharpie markers scrawled a message, and then we were all set to ask for donations.
But it’s not that easy. I was so hungry that morning I misspelled HONGRY. We pondered what message will attract the most pity? Should one employ humor? Or solemnity? Smarts? Or illiteracy? Evoke God? A fact known by the crust punks who helped us craft our sign insisted on writing God Bless on the sign to show humility and suggest a Christ-like poverty. We needed to appear stricken by povertynot by vice. I was told to grow my beard as quickly and as long as possible. In the end, disregarding our staunch atheism, Betty and I included GOD BLESS on our sign. We spent an hour adorning our message, careful not to look too artistic but not too uneducated or talented. We aimed for Northwest Street chic. With a touch of artsy pizzazz. Afterwards, we walked down the hill and assumed our position at the intersection of Spokane Street and Columbia Way. Puttering exhaust pipes puffed at eye level.
As a rattletrap rounded the corner, a familiar torso popped out of the car’s sunroof. Who was it, but Tucky from Kentucky, yelling, “Hey, y’all,” as she threw a crumpled five-dollar bill at us. Betty nearly fell in the street diving for the cash. Later that day, we discovered a strategy to employ when dealing with cars filled with families. We found making eye contact with children caused them to turn and ask their parents why a nice couple was begging for money. This became a teaching moment for the kids about philanthropy, and guilt-ridden parents tossed a buck or two in our direction. Good mommy and daddy.
When money seemed to be dying up, from a low-slung apartment building across Spokane emerged a portly man, carrying a plastic bottle of what looked like apple juice. He waved to us, waited calmly for the crossing signal to change, and sidled up, offering the juice. He explained he had been homeless in Los Angeles, and if we believed in Jesus Christ too, we’d pull ourselves out of the street. Then, without announcement, he re-crossed the street and vanished into the apartment from which he appeared.
We tried various locations around the city: along the waterfront by the aquarium until a rent-a-cop chased us away, in front of the Pacific Place Mall where we scored a jumbo bucket of buttered popcorn, although none were as lucrative as the corner of Spokane Street and Columbia Way. There we posted up at the intersection just off the freeway and waited. The money and food came rolling in, like child’s play. In the first two hours, our panhandling totals were two PB&J sandwiches, half a jug of white-cranberry juice, two unripe nectarines, a bag of Fritos, three power bars, a half-eaten bag of chili-lime popcorn, a little girl’s bag of sugar cookies, peanuts, Crackerjacks, assorted candies, and $60 cash.
According to local statute, panhandlers may not sit on the sidewalk in Seattle’s city center between the hours of 8am and 6pm. It’s an odd law to me. Standing is permissible—but no sitting. Somehow, begging while standing is more aesthetically pleasing to tourists, consumers, to the proletariat, the “white middle class.” Flying a sign was ugly, even to me. It should be, I’m a member of that class of people myself. Or, at least my parents were. No one should see a fallen cohort. White washed.
Soon a car cautiously pulled into a nearby parking lot. A man wearing a plaid shirt and blue jeans exited the vehicle and approached us. Kindly, he offered to drive us back to his house where we could shower and eat. I started to accept his suggestion, but Betty gave me a quick look and immediately shouted in his direction, denying his offer. She had thought better, telling me later she didn’t want to become the next victim of a Pacific Northwest serial killer. We laughed. We gathered our loot and walked back to home base, once our potential murderer was back in traffic.
We trudged eight or ten blocks up the hill to the house where the sign had been adorned earlier, and then eventually to the local grocery to buy a blue-and-yellow box of instant macaroni and cheese, a jug of red wine, and two cases of beer to share with our hosts. To elevate our pedestrian side dish to crusty-gourmand perfection, we harvested rosemary from a neighbor’s garden. Somebody sliced mushrooms and minced garlic before we tucked into a glorious meal of Rainier beer and herb-spiked cheesy mac.
On an after-supper beer run, our disheveled bunch marched through Beacon Hill alleys to the store. Passing a large craftsman home with a fenced back garden, all of a sudden Stevo Rotten snapped.
“Hold my jacket,” Stevo Rotten said. “Poppies!”
Stevo Rotten tried to jump the fence but fell short, teetering across the chain-linked fence at his midsection. He fought and grasped, eagerly plucking poppy-seed pods. In fear of his safety, Betty and I assisted by holding his flailing legs, keeping him from falling over the fence into the garden greenery. Minutes passed and I grabbed him by the shirt collar and brought him back to earth.
“Free poppies for the morning.”
“Let’s go,” I said. “Someone’s calling the cops.”
The next morning, Stevo Rotten emptied poppy-seed pods into a blender, added warm water and pureed the concoction for several minutes. Calamitous was the procedure. I had heard the roaring machine before, but only in the morning. He usually drank the opium amalgam before treating himself to a warm bath. Conversation over breakfast turned to Betty and me.
“How much did you make yesterday?” someone said.
Betty said, “More, per hour, than at a minimum-wage job.” Everyone laughed.
“You’re on that bullshit. Jesus Christ, the fuck are you thinking, kid?”
“Clean now. Not in Nine months,” I said. “One day I’ll get my shit together.”
“You’re too old for that,” Stevo Rotten said. “Good for you.”
We were all misfits of some sort, and we knew it. The real people, the ones with families and real jobs sneered at our condition. We judged one another, too. Like stones, we rolled along not amassing much of anything.
BRAXTON YOUNTS is a single dad and writer based in Seattle, Washington. His recent published work can be found in XRAY Literary Magazine, Newtown Literary, Dead Mule School, Rock and a Hard Place Magazine, Discretionary Love, and others. Visit his website: http://www.braxtonyounts.ink