The Bum's Rush
You spot him out of the corner of your eye, hanging outside the Kabuki Theater exit doors:
"Hey, excuse me, sir, how are you doing? I'm a basketball player, from Philadelphia. I'm not a bum or a drunk, I'm clean, don't worry, ha ha. I'm starting a job as a security guard this Friday. I just need a few dollars for a can of vegetable soup for my little baby girl. I'm stayin' at a girlfriend's house right now until things pick up. Some nice folks just gave me $4. Hey, I'll buy you a beer sometime! What goes around comes around, man. I just gave some guy a couple of bucks myself!"
You slip him a few coins to get rid of him and walk off. Over your shoulder you hear him chuckle, "Hey, maybe next time you see me, I'll be on my way to get a Rolex!"
And you realize you've been had.
This guy is no ordinary one-hit wonder. He is a breed apart from your basic scab-covered wretch, junkie kid, or United Negro Pizza Fund "gimmick bum." This rap has been honed and reworked over five years of practice in various districts of the city. He is a consummate professional, and you bought it.
His tone is always very polite and articulate. He uses the same voice that people trot out when they're conscious-ly trying to impress someone, from grandstanding attorneys and campaigning politicians all the way down to those 4-H kids lecturing about proper goat-milking procedures. He talks just a little faster than normal, making sure to keep one step ahead of the listener, which is ideal for people exiting a movie theater, since they'll still be mulling over the subplot semiotics of Casper.
As he has done for several years, he immediately mentions he is a former basketball player, which not only explains his 6-foot-5-inch height but also pegs him as an athlete, an all-around decent sports guy and good role model for kids. Why don't you just go ahead and admit it -- you were an All-State forward who refused pro ball to become a volunteer minister. Philadelphia is also a good detail -- it seems like a sports town, and geographically distant enough that few would question it.
Speaking of threads, his clothing is always very clean and new, suggesting this panhandling thing is just temporary, and frankly, he's a little embarrassed to be doing it today and he'll be working soon, but ooh, what new clothing it is, and carefully chosen to support his story: blue embroidered U.S. Olympics T-shirt, gold chain with "J" hanging from it, snazzy white Windbreaker and sweat pants, sports logo cap, brand-new gleaming white Nike sneakers. His clothing cost more than yours, and he's asking you for money. Why not just go hog wild and hit folks up while wearing an Armani suit? Seems to be working for Willie Brown right now.
His request is always very specific, as if he's researched the ideal scenario, thought every element through completely, run some initial field studies with a variety of Harvard University control groups before finally concluding that yes, it is unequivocally exactly one can of packaged soup, country vegetable flavor, that will solve this unfortunate food-allotment inconsistency for the child.
Aww, the child. It's always a good choice to emphasize the hunger of a poor baby girl as your motive for panhandling. A shivering dog or kitty is somewhat appealing on an initial level, but really, what decent human being could resist the squall of a starving infant? It's like fingernails on a chalkboard.
After you slip over some change, you continue talking with him. He keeps up the Willy Loman chuckle-bum shtick, but since the deal's over, he's starting to get nervous. You notice that he never really looks you in the eye during conversation.
"Are you in one part of town more than others, like Fisherman's Wharf, where there are a lot of tour-ists?"
"I'm in the East Bay a lot. I stay with a couple of girlfriends."
There's a tip-off. If ev-erything is so clean-and-sober, what-goes-around-comes-around, job-starts-this-Friday, what are you doing dragging your hungry kid around from girlfriend to girlfriend for the past five years?
"I write for a newspaper. Can I follow you around, see what you do during the day?"
"Yeah, I'm already working with Donahue and Geraldo, man. Naw, just kidding, ha ha! I don't need no media bullshit."
"Do you really have a little girl?"
"Yeah, you want to see a picture of her?"
He flicks open a startlingly new leather wallet to reveal a photo of a smiling, chubby-cheeked 3- to 4-year-old girl, sitting on a bed, looking not at all particularly hungry. In fact, she looks happy as hell, her little tummy probably bloated with gallons of vegetable soup. She upchucked three times that afternoon from overeating. Later this evening, when her daddy pulls the shiny Lexus into that circular tree-lined driveway in Woodside, she'll come waddling out to greet him, still bloated from soup, and he'll blow a kiss to Mom waving from the kitchen window:
"Forget dinner, baby. We're goin' out again tonight!"
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