Panhandling with Lola,an account of parent assisted homework with the homeless and a canine attendant
Over dinner not long ago, my son Clayton, his mom, Elin, and a friend of hers were talking and together they came up with a novel scheme for a science project he had due. The exact metamorphosis I am not sure of, but it seemed to have evolved from a combination of his interest in human and canine behavior. He was hot for the idea which necessitated the cooperation of a homeless panhandler. Clay and Elin had a particular one in mind. Clay would ask him if he would let Clay monitor how much money he collected on average per hour at a certain time and place just standing there with his sign, and then while standing with his sign and our lovable boxer Lola who goes back and forth between homes and seems to have adjusted to this without too much psychological damage. The plan was to do it two times each way. That’s not much of a sampling, but each of us has only so much time, it being such a busy world, and it would fly for seventh grade science.
Good lord, what parents do to help kids with their homework. Not all parents. I never helped my first son, Kelly, but I was an insane hippie musician Zennie in outer space back then. But Kelly did extremely well in school on his own even though I'd suggest that he drop out and deal drugs or hang with me by the tidepools where I lived at the time. Clay's a little more ADD or ADHD or ADXZ than that. Like me. Like Elin, I do a lot with Clay on his schoolwork at home, even though I’m opposed to these poor kids getting all this homework. My schedule is more flexible than Elin’s since she works full time as a kindergarten teacher and I just type, wander about, and vacuum, so I offered to see that most of the data collection part of this project get done. There was not much time left till its due date.
The target panhandler was a guy who regularly stands by the main exit from a shopping center in Santa Rosa. A lot of the panhandlers are on islands in the middle of the street and that would be no good for Lola but this guy is by the lawn of a Burger King. Lola could sit right by him on the grass leashed to a stake we could drive into the sod and Clay could monitor the situation from the Burger King where he could also do his own personal research on the dangers of fast food. They’d seen this panhandler there for years and they liked his vibes. He wasn’t one of the crazies, seemed like a person Clay could talk to about this. I remembered seeing him there too. It's near the school where Elin works and a restaurant we all like called Pho Vietnam which is in that shopping center.
Problem was, Elin said she hadn’t seen him around recently. Time was running out so I started going by there and didn’t see him either. Clay and I drove by a couple of days ago at dinnertime. He wasn’t there again. Clay and I decided to dine at Pho Vietnam and as I parked I noticed a security guard on a cell phone. I waited for him to get through with his call walking behind him in the parking lot till he noticed me and signed off. I asked him if he knew where the panhandler in question was. He said he hadn’t seen him around for a number of days, that sometimes he’s gone for weeks at a time, but that he’ll surely return as he’d been standing there for eleven years. Wow. The security guard’s name was Bill and he spoke affectionately and with almost a sense of awe about the panhandler. He said the guy lived in the field across the street, was quite regular, didn’t drink, and worked out at a gym every day. Bill said the bearded older man was a strong, disciplined, spiritual person whom he admired. He gave me his own cell phone number and said I could call him to see if the panhandler was there, but that he, Bill, worked from five pm till one a.m. and that the panhandler usually worked early morning till four pm so he often missed him. I thanked him and Clay and I went to dinner. Clay knows the menu so well he can order by number and he made an excellent selection for me.
The next morning, yesterday, Clay and I went by there at 7:30 to no avail. I drove him to school and returned to check the spot again with no success. Then I drove around Santa Rosa to other spots where I’d seen panhandlers. No luck. I went to a Catholic Service Agency which I’ve given clothes and furniture to for poor people and a man there told me that a new tougher anti-panhandling law or policy just came into effect and that the police were telling these people to move on and he saw a policeman tearing up a panhandler’s sign. He also noted that the policeman just threw the pieces on the sidewalk instead of properly disposing of them in a trash receptacle. I asked if the new law was city or county and he didn’t know and actually he’d just surmised it existed because of what he'd mentioned and because the family who always seemed to have a member at Mendocino and College hadn’t been there and there was no one at Coddingtown or further out Cleveland Ave or on Steele Lane.
Back at the car I sat and thought for a while. Should I give up? I called my friend Jim in Fort Worth for a consultation. We talked about Iraq and all that for a while and what columnists I could link to from Drudge that had hot recent articles. I told him to wait a second, that I was getting dizzy from hunger. He said to say hello to my old friend Jerry who was with him and put Jerry on and I told Jerry I was about to faint and that I'd call right back. I ran into a grocery store to get a mango power drink and an apple. Back to the phone. Jerry had left. Told Jim the plan. He said that maybe I should be the panhandler. I said that I love drama but that I just couldn’t bear the thought of playing that role just yet. Then he suggested that Clay do it and I said that that could bring on social workers and court hearings. Before we hung up he told me there had been a pregnant panhandler near his home who would rub her bulging stomach as cars approached. It was so successful that she kept it up for three years. Sort of like the rug store at Tam Junction in Mill Valley that for ten years had a "Going out of Business Sale" in front where all the tourists driving down Highway One could see it.
I decided to go to the police station and, on the way, visited an artist and sculptor friend named Andrew who lives down the street from it to see some of his new art work, of course telling him what I was doing and asking what he’d noticed of panhandlers of late. He had nothing new to offer on that but said that there were no more homeless living by the nearby creek. There’s a creek that goes by the edge of the center of town and there are a lot of trees and other vegetation hiding it from view for a great deal of its course and he said that there had been up to 2500 people living in there, a number I doubted but that he stood by, and he said that a judge had told the city they couldn’t evict these people till there was some place for them to go. So the city created a number of homeless centers (which naturally had many more beds in the poorer areas) and evicted the creeksteaders and Andrew said that it took bulldozers and workers a week to clean out all the plastic and trash from alongside and inside the creek.
At the police station I made it clear that I was not coming from the position of panhandler advocacy but doing groundwork for a small sociological study. A couple of receptionists I talked to said there’s no new law and I asked several policemen if there’s a new policy or directive about panhandlers if not a new law. They all shook their heads and told me they sometimes tell panhandlers to move off the concrete meridians in roads or not to block sidewalks or driveways, but that’s about all. I have an ex-nephew who’s a detective in that force and they said he’d know more about it but he wasn’t there so I went on.
As I left I thought about my ex-nephew and was glad he was in the office and not in the field anymore. He’d had to kill two men on duty and both were traumatic experiences for him. The first was a pretty clear suicide by cop by a guy with a long knife who wouldn’t stop coming at him and another cop and the second was a guy who had run off without paying from a service station and who had then come back when my uniformed in-law had answered the call and was talking to the station attendant. My ex-nephew started to question the guy who hadn’t paid and who then grabbed a screwdriver and started stabbing my ex-nephew repeatedly in the head. He said he’d shot the guy five times without even knowing he’d pulled the gun. It was good he was quick because in another second or two he would have been dead or unconscious instead of his attacker. Unlike in movies or on TV cop shows where people kill other people and then swagger on to the next assignment or to kiss their gal, my ex-nephew took a long time to recover from both episodes, went through therapy, had paid leaves of absence, was exonerated of any wrongdoing, and after the second one put at a desk. I thought of friends scared by their experiences in Vietnam and our soldiers in Iraq who will be bringing back another mountain range of nightmares, suicide, and addiction and who will, I bet, as before, receive more support from those who opposed their going to war than from those who sent them.
Back to thinking about the panhandlers. If there’s no new law, I wondered, where are they all? There aren’t ever tons of these people out begging in these parts, but there should be someone somewhere practicing this method of wealth redistribution. I wondered if maybe they were having a convention or had gone on strike. It wouldn’t seem practical for them all to take vacations at the same time. I called the county agency for the homeless and the person I talked to there didn’t know anything about anything. No agencies are involved with panhandling which is, after all, entrepreneurial in nature, and I got the impression that the man at the other end didn’t want to be associated with it in any way.
Maybe a nearby town I thought. I know two people who work for a homeless shelter in neighboring Petaluma, one of which has done some editing for my web site, but, after various numbers pressed, couldn’t get to a live human and just left a message. I really wanted to get this over with and considered driving to Petaluma to see if there were any panhandlers to be found. On the way I called a Tasmanian friend who said that that morning shopping at Costco he’d not seen the person there he usually sees with their sign standing by the entrance. Since I was going that way anyway I decided I check it out thinking maybe they’d been on a break, and voila! There stood a man with a sign in the meridian between one of the entrances and exits.
I parked the car and went over and handed him a dollar and we talked while he continued to do his job. I asked if he frequented this spot and he said he did. I asked what his hours were and he said seven or eight in the morning till four in the afternoon when the security guard came on. He didn’t know of any new law and said they always get hassled somewhat but he and his colleagues were still in business. He said that a couple of them were just over by the Wendy’s. His name was Clarence and he was quite lucid and would be a good subject for this study, but his meridian was only about two feet wide – no good for a dog – too narrow and nowhere to tie a leash to.
I walked up the street to where the Wendy’s was and, sure enough, there was a man with a sign on a somewhat wide divider with a tree, grass, flowers, and a post perfect for tying Lola to. I gave him a dollar and learned that he was just standing in for the regular guy there who was on a lunch break. His name was Gene and he said he’d probably be in the hospital soon, that he’d had three open heart surgeries and wasn’t feeling well. That seemed like a capital idea, not open heart surgery but lunch, so I walked over to Trader Joe’s to get some food. There was a man outside leaning on a column and cradling a wrinkled cardboard sign that said he was a homeless veteran. He seemed a little touched in the head, not all there, and he mumbled he couldn’t stand in the prime locations where those other guys had been because it was their territory and they were younger and stronger and would push him right out. He got a dollar from me too.
I ate packaged Dim Sum squatting on the sidewalk outside Trader Joe’s. I also bought four bottles of Charles Shaw Merlot, their "two buck chuck," and told the teller I’d come back with my car in a moment to get them. I could have carried them but didn’t think it good form to talk to panhandlers while holding four bottles of wine, though none of these men seemed to have had anything to drink at all. I’m used to beggars that drink. I used to go buy them booze in San Francisco and drink it with them. Usually I’d have no time for that so I’d say, "I’ll give you a dollar, but only if you spend it on alcohol." I remember being a teenager and, after my mother had gone to sleep in the Taft Hotel, slipping over to Times Square where I gave some bums money to buy cheap wine and then hanging out with them. The only beggar I saw in India last fall who wanted a drink was a college graduate burnout from a wealthy family. Maybe he was borderline though I don't know what that means. He’d try to get large, for India, grants from people showing them a note that said he was brain damaged. I’d buy him a cup of tea and one for myself and drink that with him and tell him he could do better than be a hundred rupee con man.
The stand-in panhandler was still in the good place I had in mind for Clay’s experiment so I walked back to the car to drive back to Trader Joe's and get the wine, after which surely the regular guy for that place would be back. Clarence was not at his spot. I went to the car and saw him with another guy sitting on a curb by a hedge in the parking lot. Clarence was eating a hamburger and the other guy was smoking a cigarette, American Spirit, preference of the elite, and I commented "tailor made." He nodded approvingly while his friend picked up buts out of the curb, something I haven't done for a while thank goodness. I asked Clarence if he was the fellow who frequents the spot by Wendy’s and Clarence said yes. After a few introductory comments, I asked him if he’d be willing to have my boxer Lola stand with him for a couple of times, an hour each time.
"No way," he said, "I don’t use props."
"Don’t use props?" I asked.
"Yeah, it wouldn’t be honest. I have to keep my integrity."
I told him what it was about. He said of course you get more money with a dog and that women get more than men. "There’s a woman down by the Borders who has a dog. Go check her out. It yaps at people and she still gets good money. There’s a guy by the freeway who has a cast and a cane and he makes so much he has a car. I’ve seen him throw the cast and cane in the back seat when he’s through. No, I don’t like props. I keep my honesty and integrity."
I asked his friend if he’d do it but he said no, his cat would be jealous. And there it was in a box in the bushes right by us.
I called Clay’s mother up and told her what the panhandlers had said and said that I didn’t think this would work, that it was degrading to them, though they were all polite and thanked me for the dollars and said "God bless you," when I left. These guys wanted to keep their self respect – and I sensed that each was set in their ways. I'd wondered from the very first if I should ask someone who works with the homeless about this but had let that warning pass. We agreed that I’d pick up Clay and take him to the Santa Rosa Library and we’d look through a book on science projects.
I had a couple of hours to kill so I went to charming Coffee Cats in Sebastopol, got some tea, and hooked up my laptop and started writing this report to turn in to my superiors at cuke.com. Two crying babies right by me – not crying concurrently – the second one woke up after the first left. Crying babies don’t bother me. In general I think that guys, including fathers, have fewer baby crying receptors than women. I remember falling asleep on the cushioned bench and dreaming of a crying baby and waking up to find a real one.
When Clay came out of school I gave him the keys to the car and went to consult about his studies with a particularly attractive and good vibe teacher. Back in the car I told Clay what was up and he suggested that he could do it instead of a panhandler and he went on about it for a moment in his non-linear way and I said what I’d said to Jim about getting in trouble for that and he said that I wasn’t listening to him. He repeated himself. "Oh. I get it," I said. "What a good idea!" He had bright idea. Why didn’t I think of it? There was no need to give up the plan. Just alter it. I was too stuck in its form.
Not actually to digress but to seem like it, Sebastopol is a very progressive community. It’s maybe the only town in the country run by the Green Party. It’s a nuclear free zone and opposed the Iraq war and supports gay marriage and a living wage, for two employees anyway, which they're going to have to renigg on so that the super rich and corporations can have more to trickle down. Sebastopol also has always supported, unanimously, the creation of a skateboard park. Clay, not wishing his peers to get more tickets from the police for skateboarding over all the NO SKATEBOARDS signs on the sidewalks, has participated in this movement. Elin’s really involved. I’ve helped Bill, one of the real estate agents who sold my house, stuff envelopes for this cause in his office. A mother whom I exchanged sleeping bags with yesterday, correcting the error of having given her my neighbor’s daughter’s bag instead of her son’s, is, according to Clay, something like the head of the organization right now. Everybody’s for it - until a site is chosen and there’s a hearing. Then the nearby residents come out.
All the kids and sympathetic parents and neighbors have had a hell of a time trying to get a skate board park built. NIMBY has opposed any location that the promoters have come up with. NIMBY, if you don’t already know, is the Non-parents-of-males Indignantly Making Boys Illegal. The person who started it was a dyslexic Albanian immigrant who thought that Indignant was spelled with a Y and everyone was too embarrassed to correct his spelling. This skateboard park movement has been going on so long in Sebastopol that, when it finally gets built, and it looks like it’s really going to happen at some point in the future, the kids that it was originally intended to serve will just be beginning to collect on Social Security and will need instead a wheelchair and walker park.
We had a big event at the community center recently that raised all sorts of money for the park. I was in charge of the kids who went around with cans which had wrap-around labels promoting the park and slots on top for coins and bills to go in. These cans are in shops all over town now and people put spare change in them but on that day the kids were putting in these cans money for raffle tickets they were going around and selling. The kids did pretty good but one of the mothers who is built like Jane Mansfield (before her accident) got more from men walking by than everyone else combined. Actually, she’s a good friend of mine and I know she’s interested in changing careers and after seeing her performance at that event I suggested sales – of guns or off road vehicles or whatever guys buy. I think even women would feel compelled to cooperate with her. Anyway, Clay was one of the kids going around with the cans.
"We don't need a panhandler anyway, I'll do it. Get me four of those cans and I’ll raise money for the skateboard park with Lola two times and without her two times," he said in the parking lot of his school yesterday as I reviewed the conference I’d had with his teacher a few minutes before. It was because of this concern for his scholastic achievement that I’d missed his point. But the second time I got it. I called up Bill, the realtor, and he said he was just closing a deal in Santa Rosa but that he’d be back at his Sebastopol office in twenty minutes and had a bunch of those cans in his trunk. After rewarding Clay with a scoop of blackberry sherbet and another of cookie dough vanilla at Screaming Mimi’s, we went to the real estate office next door, met with Bill, and got four cans with slits on top. First we went to Whole Foods because we were hungry and they turned us down, don’t let people solicit in front of the store anymore. So we ate dinner paid for by the pound and went to the friendly nearby Safeway (which means "went away" in Spanish) and, though the acting manager couldn’t find the right form for us to sign, she said it was okay and showed Clay where he could stand so as not to be in people’s way. I left him there with Lola, who loves to beg from strangers as well, and, after a little coaching Clay on projecting his voice and keeping it simple and being assertive, went out walking in downtown Sebastopol for an hour, spending a good deal of that time in the excellent Many Rivers Bookstore and Teashop which always keeps all three of my books in stock. When I returned he had a fairly full can and had thoroughly enjoyed himself. One person had given ten dollars. I dropped him off at one of his friend's home and then realized I'd forgotten to get the four bottles of wine I'd paid for at Trader Joe's.
Elin’s taking him back to the Safeway today. I just called her at school and told her that Bill had left a letter at the front desk authorizing Clay to collect money for the skateboard park – a few people had questioned his motives - and told her about going in to get permission and where Clay and Lola should stand. He and I are going to Tassajara for the Noh Race this weekend and then I’ll take him next Tuesday and Wednesday to finish the data collection. And then he will write up the results of his scientific study under Elin's watchful eye and get it turned in by next Friday hopefully in time for press releases to science writers across the country.
When I first went out to call Elin my key wouldn’t fit into the lock and then I noticed that it wasn’t my car, mine was in the adjoining space. I saw that there were only four minutes left on the meter and went back into the Sonoma Coffee Company where I’m plugged in and got four quarters and then went back and put the first one in the slot and saw that there was an hour and twenty-six minutes left. How did that happen? I wondered. A quarter’s twenty minutes and I only had one or two left. Oh – wrong car again. So I only got to put another hour on my meter but that will be enough time to finish doing what I want to do here. Then I reflected on the fact that my car is about the most common looking car on the road these days – it’s a gold ’97 Camry. I frequently go up to other gold cars with similar bodies, sometimes sticking my key in the locks and wondering why it doesn’t work.
Then I thought that if I do indeed get down to nothing in the fiscal department, which I’m approaching, that going out and standing on the streets with a sign that reads, "Will shoot the bull for money," or whatever, would not be my only recourse. That would be, from what I’ve gathered from talking to panhandlers, the path of honesty and integrity. But what if I want to maximize profit any way I can like a great number of capitalist enterprises, I think I could start a start a business wherein I’d park my car near other gold cars of similar body and, utilizing the latest methods, open the door of the other car and remove whatever valuables I can get at – CD players, wallets, cell phones, prescription drugs. And if I got caught I’d just say, "Oh my gosh, I thought this was my car. Very sorry." And then I’d go open my car up and drive off. Or I could go ostensibly raise money for the skateboard park using Bill’s letter.
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