Free Parking for Sale

Many say homeless guys who help commuters find street parking provide a valuable service. But others complain that they cause trouble.

Indeed, opinions on Silas seem neatly divided. Those who know him trust him. Those who don't are skeptical.

Rob, a SOMA business owner who asked that only his first name be printed, has been on both sides. "My attitude when I first started working here was, 'I hate these people,'" he says. "I can park on my own. Why do I have to give a buck? He's standing there waving me in and I don't need that."

Rob felt intimidated by the homeless black man, and thought it best to pay up. "It could be a white guy, too, but certainly everybody has a racial impression in their heads," he says.

In South Park, Lyn Silas (right) enjoys a cold one with his mentor, Don King.
Ashley Harrell
In South Park, Lyn Silas (right) enjoys a cold one with his mentor, Don King.

Then Silas started giving helpful updates on when parking control officers were issuing tickets. Rob also had a few conversations with Silas and found he genuinely liked the guy. "With time, I realized it's beneficial to me and everybody who works here," he says.

Silas loves helping people avoid tickets and find parking spots, but lately, he's beginning to feel a bit beaten down. There was that ticket for directing traffic. There are the cold stares from traffic cops, and talk that MTA would prefer for him to disappear. And the memo was the worst of all.

"You can't prove something you didn't do," he says, sitting at a kelly-green picnic table in South Park. On top of everything, Silas recently learned that he has a "bad heart," which explains why he's been getting short of breath lately. So instead of parking cars for the rest of the week, he'll be getting things in order to visit the doctor.

He's also in a somber mood, because on the walk over, another homeless man — a big one in a camouflage jacket, with a thick torso and a thick head — demanded that Silas share his pork cracklins.

"You beggin'," Silas scolded.

"Beggin'!" the man thundered back, reaching into the bag. "Don't say beggin'!"

Silas doesn't normally apologize for much — he's stubborn like that. But in this case, he made an immediate exception.

"I didn't mean to insult the guy we just passed," he says. "I just say what's on my mind and it come out fast and it come out simple."

Silas takes a sip of his Steel Reserve, hidden in a paper bag, and pops a piece of pork cracklin into his mouth. He chews slowly, careful not to get any crumbs on his army fatigues, which he is wearing in honor of Saint Patrick's Day. On another bench in the park, three more homeless men — including the thick one — are also dressed in green for the occasion.

One of them is Don King, who taught Silas to woo-woo. When King comes over for a chat, Silas smiles so widely his eyes disappear into slits. "I love this man," he says.

Don King is wearing a knitted green hat and gloves that look new, and for good luck, he's carrying an apple-sized glass ball he found near a cherry tree last month. He says he prefers not to give too much information about himself, but he talks slowly, as though he doesn't have a care in the world. "One day I didn't have nothing to do," he says about the time he started woo-wooing. "That was seven or eight years ago. I found it provided for me."

"You still goin' woo-woo?" Silas asks.

Don King nods and smiles.

Though he's tired, Silas says that for the meantime, he, too, will continue to woo-woo. Besides, the baseball season is starting, which means the demand for Silas' services will increase. "They're not going to scare me off when I'm helping all these people," he says.

Like other woo-wooers who forego hustling for a steady gig, Silas has come to feel a sense of obligation to his block. It's become a job, a home, and a place where he has meaningful interactions with friendly people whom, without woo-woo, he almost certainly would not know. They try to compliment him sometimes by telling him he could have a real job if he wanted one. Silas just shakes his head and sighs.

It's real to him.

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This is great. This whole story. The kicker's a cherry on top.


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