If they had an ominous theme song, like Jaws' foreboding bass line or Jason's eerie clicks and screeches, it would probably be the sound of wheezing followed by some jingling change. But they don't, because you can usually smell them long before any such song would kick in. And that distinctive scent is warning enough.
They are desperate. They have no shame. And they are legion.
They attack you on the street without fail, moaning and pawing at you like zombies hungry for brains. Even in your car you must run the gauntlet.
In fact, you are almost more vulnerable driving than walking, where you can briskly pass bums by without fear of a badly timed stoplight, during which some Sasquatch-looking clown might assault your windshield with a squeegee. Terrified, you have two options: a) search in horror for some errant change with which to appease the beast; b) shamefully peel out down the street as soon as he clears your front bumper. Or just plow right through him. Okay, three options.
They can’t be bargained with. They can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel fear, or remorse, or pity. And they absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you pay them.
It’s a fact of city life. Whether you live in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Boston, bums are just something you have to deal with. Luckily, after a few months, all the guilt, anger and shame fade away into a smoldering pile of irritation, with an occassional slide into pity that finds you subsidizing some crackhead's relapse every few months.
Some people assuage their guilt by being kind and giving generously to their local hobo. Others isolate themselves in cocoons of apathy, writing scathingly cruel columns in attempts to wring a few laughs from the necks of people far worse off than themselves. Me, I work at a soup kitchen a few times a month.
The problem with bums cannot be easily remedied. But that's okay. They have a legitimate societal role to play, as unwitting sources of motivation for the rest of us. Much as the concept of hell nudges us towards the straight and narrow, homeless boogeymen frighten us into lives of ambition, hard work, and daily showering.
Besides, bums don’t even have it that bad. Honestly, who wouldn’t love to just roll out of box every morning and crack a brewski first thing?
Harry Hobo's life is one endless tailgate. Except instead of painting his face, drinking all morning, eating hot dogs and hamburgers, and eventually cheering on his favorite team, Harry never even shaves his face, drinks around the clock, eats cigarette butts and stale twinkies, and eventually curls up in a ball and passes out on a bench soaked in vomit. Go team!
Such a fulfilling routine has but one major drawback: jobs are hard to come by when you are too drunk to speak and smell like a combination of atomic B.O. and wet ashtrays. So Harry must provoke the wrath of the rest of the population in a never-ending attempt to scrounge up enough change to buy a few more nips of Jack and a pack of Winstons.
But Harry and his friends soldier on, secure in the fact that they will always be there and that there's nothing we can do about it. They are impossible to avoid, so we must learn to deal with them.
There are a few different categories of bums we all need to be aware of. Most of them want money, some of them are insane, a few are even frauds pretending to be homeless to make enough change to cover the final payment on their beach house. But the elite, the bums we gotta send to Miramar, they give us a little bang for our buck. These are the best of the best.
1) Sympathy Vote –- this is the bum that holds up a charmingly misspelled sign detailing his dire straits. Usually he’s a vet, or has AIDES, or just ran out of bullets. Once I saw a college-aged kid holding a sign declaring that he was homeless and needed money for bus fare back to Texas. I handed him a sawbuck and yelled, “And stay out!”
2) Mr. Bojangles -– the entertainer. He works hard for his money. Maybe he sings a bit, maybe he dances, maybe he does a little bit of both. Sometimes he speaks gibberish, and that can be the most entertaining routine of all (so long as he's not having a stroke), especially if he yells and spits at the air while doing it. Would be worth at least fifty cents if I weren’t terrified to be within ten feet of him.
3) Mr. Belvedere –- the picture of courtesy. He says thank you, he asks how you’re doing, he opens the door for you, and regardless of whether or not you put anything in his cup, he tells you to have a great day. And he always has a smile on his face. But there’s always something vaguely threatening behind his façade of friendliness. The sense that if you don’t at least acknowledge him, he’ll go Berserker. His love for you is ticking clock.
4) Sleeping Beauty -– this is the bum that steals Sympathy Vote’s business. His approach is totally artless. He just lives his life, and his long day of drinking and soiling himself results in a powerful, immediate need for sleep. You usually find him passed out on a stoop or a park bench, hence his name. He doesn’t even have a change cup; he’s all about the love of the game. The Brett Favre of bums, he's like a little kid out there. I like to drop some dimes into his invariably gaping maw. When he wakes up, he sets off to buy another fifth with his spoils and the cycle repeats itself.
5) Joe Pesci from With Honors -- this wizened old ex-Ivy Leaguer-bum doesn't actually exist. He only appears to, when it's 1AM and you are completely blasted. Inviting him up to your apartment for some bagel bites and a joint is never a good idea, could leave a stain, be hard to remove, or bring Brendan Fraser.
6) The Actual Joe Pesci -- the careerless actor might actually be out there. Get him drunk and make him do the "how am I funny?" routine for a dollar. Then tell him that "no self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits" and spit in his face for Gone Fishin'.
There are many, many more varieties: the lurker who squats in ATM vestibules; the belligerent guy who gets in your face and demands you pay him; the guy who camps out in the same spot near the subway every morning, as constant as the mailman.
Getting to know your bums is an important tool in safely navigating city life. Be careful out there. And don't bait them. You never know when you might need their help. You don't want to end up with a bag of oregano.
Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".
ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
5.26.06 @ 10:50a
So, no one has any opinion on bums? I know there are a lot of city dwellers out there, we've all run into the situations mentioned in the column. In fact, even today I had to turn someone away when they asked for change. I simply had nothing on me or in my car. No cash, no change...I felt like a jerk, but what can you do sometimes?
5.26.06 @ 2:30p
I was stuck in traffic on 14th St. in D.C. once, trying to get to 95. There was some bike race, and everything was backed up. Enough gridlock that the traffic lights hardly meant anything.
So right in front of us is this gold Chrysler, with a dad and what looks like maybe an 8-year-old boy in the front seat. Meanwhile, some bat-shit crazy homeless guy is wandering in and out of the cars, I imagine hoping that someone will give him some change. He's carrying parts of what used to be one of those little white plastic flag holders that people attached to their car doors after 9/11.
As we're waiting for the traffic to inch forward, we see this homeless guy go up and knock on the window of the car with the guy and the kid. The guy waves him off, which angers the homeless guy. He retaliates by slapping the hood of the guy's car with one half of his plastic white batton.
Without warning, the guy throws open the door of his car, runs up to the homeless guy, and throws a serious roundhouse across his jaw, sending him sprawling onto the sidewalk.
The guy then jumps back into his car, throws it in drive, and ... he can't speed off because we're in gridlock. His car goes nowhere.
Luckily for him, the homeless guy is so surprised that he just sits on the sidewalk in kind of a delusional dejected sort of way.
We were treated to the sight of this guy then turning and lecturing to his son about who knows what. "Now, never try to do what Daddy did, Billy. Only grownups can beat up crazy homeless people."
5.26.06 @ 10:01p
Sorry, Mikey, Adam's story rocks.
5.30.06 @ 10:41a
Oh, there's more where that came from (though that's probably the best). I had a guy stop me recently outside a bar and ask for bus fare because he locked himself out of his apartment and needed to go uptown to get his extra keys from his girlfriend.
I nearly pointed out to him that his story would have been better if we hadn't been standing on a one-way downtown street. It's tough to catch the uptown bus on 2nd Ave.
5.30.06 @ 10:45a
A friend of mine in Chicago had a bum get grabby late one night and yank two bucks out of his pocket on his way home from the bars. My drunk friend got mad - on principle, not at losing a measly 2 bucks - and proceeded to stagger after the staggering bum, chasing him into and through Union Station, screaming "STOP THAT BUM!" as onlookers sniggered at the drunk 20 something chasing a drunk bum through the train station at 2 in the morning.
6.1.06 @ 4:47p
On my usual route to work (well, my old usual route, as I don't see any coming from the bedroom out to my office) it was Bum Central: men camped out at streetlight corners with various signs all the time. I usually passed by most of them without blinking.
My favorite sign? "I'm Not Going to Lie To You: I Need a Beer."
But a couple of months ago, there was this one guy I'd not seen before, and he had a really haunted look about him. Sign said "Hungry - no job - please help."
So I stopped and picked up a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, some canned chili, plastic utensils from the self-serve counter and some fruit. Cost me, like, 10 bucks. Drove back around and handed it to him. He totally flipped, thanking me and blessing me and when I looked him dead in the eyes, he was crying and really seemed relieved. He immediately sat on the ground and ate a banana.
And I never saw him in that area again.
I'd like to think that if he got through the week on that food, something changed for the better for him. Wishful thinking, sure, but sometimes, you just have to have a sense of wonder.
I've only done this 3-4 times in my life. But each time, it really seemed necessary.
Otherwise, I pay no attention. Even when punk kids on Hollywood Blvd. tell me to go fuck myself after they've asked for change and I say no.