Chapter 5: The Wild West
“And you can walk away right now but, brother, can you spare a dime?”
— Kenny Wayne, “Cobblestones”
Spanging — a.k.a. stemming, a.k.a. signing, more commonly known as panhandling — is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever worked. And I’ve had some hard jobs. To display my credentials I will present three:
1. Garbage man (in the old days, when there were no robotic arms, and if some guy filled a 55-gallon steel drum with glass, you still had to lift it up high enough to dump it in the truck)
2. Hider (salting hides in a slaughterhouse basement — at night, when the killing is complete, wading knee-deep in blood, dragging heavy, blood-saturated cattle skins through the thick scent of death)
3. Janitor (this position included the usual garbage, vomit, shit and piss custodians encounter daily, but it was third shift at a university and I also cleaned the morgue and the gross-anatomy lab/dissecting room, spending most of my night surrounded by cadavers)
I’ve also worked cutting, splitting and hauling firewood, I’ve labored in factories and warehouses and restaurant kitchens, and I’ve done landscaping, carpentry and steel construction. But these are all jobs you can clock in and out of. Spanging is perpetual, there’s no guarantee of any income whatsoever, and it gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.
In order to spange, you have to meet four qualifications.
The first criteria: You must be desperate.
The second: Your pride must be gone; you are fully humbled.
Next: Your ego must remain intact after pride has disintegrated; you must believe you deserve Charity.
Lastly: You must retain your Dignity, maintaining your character and composure at all times.
It’s a difficult job to do well. People are more apt to give you money for food than anything else.
Why? Why do people think food is all that important? Why would shoe strings — or guitar strings, for that matter — be less significant? Why do you care if the bum is buying a burger or a bottle of gin? If it’s come down to choosing between a bottle and a sandwich, perhaps the bottle is the better choice. I mean, really, the sandwich is going to cause you to want another sandwich — to need another sandwich— in about two or three hours. The bottle can last all day. And any bottle could be the last bottle. One never really knows.
While I had no guitar I developed a bit of a stand-up comedy act for the sidewalk. It was a guerilla technique of one-liners, riddles, and story-jokes incorporating my immediate surroundings — improvisations enlisting people nearby, including the people I was attempting to entertain. This made my carnival act feel interactive and authentic.
“I’ll tell you a hell of a joke for a dollar or a string of riddles for fifty cents! First one free: What do you call a guitar player without a guitar? A bum! I bet you thought I was gonna say ‘a comedian.’ Well, now that I have your attention: What do you call a guitar player without a girlfriend? Homeless!”
Now, I may or may not have had someone’s attention as I said this. I was generally just rambling on, trying to draw attention, to make eye contact with passersby. I was pretty good at it, too. I hate to say it, but I usually made a lot more money telling jokes than I did playing and singing.
This particular night I was spanging on Fore Street in the Old Port, telling jokes, trying to put out a good vibe, when this really big black guy walked by. I said something and he stopped and gave me a dollar. We talked for a couple minutes, then he said, “Gimme back that dollar.”
“You want your dollar back?” I didn’t know what I’d said to warrant a refund, but it was only a dollar. And this guy was huge, bigger than me. If he really wanted his buck back, he could probably just take it. So I pulled out the bill and handed it over.
He took the dollar, then pulled out a five and offered it to me. Naturally, I reached for the bill, but he yanked it away. “You can only have this five dollars if you let me buy you a drink.”
So off we went, to Amigos. He introduced himself, and it turned out he really was a really big black Guy (that was his name). We sat down at the bar, and when the bartender approached, she looked me right in the eyes. “Didn’t you kill me in a movie once?” she asked.
Indeed, I had. We’d acted together in a film for a mutual friend — a short called “The Six String Strangler.” I had strangled her with a guitar string. To be honest, she dominates in the scene, which is pretty much the entire film. I believe it was a school project. Anyway, her ghost seemed to be doing well. She looked great bringing me tequila.
I learned from Guy that he’d just quit his job and had no idea where the next check was coming from. I also learned from Guy — and this has been confirmed by my interactions with others in the streets — that when people get fired or quit a job, they often seek out someone to celebrate or suffer with, and they can be very generous with the drinks.
I never ended up sleeping in a doorway with the big man, or even saw him around the Block, so I’m betting Guy got himself another gig pretty quickly. Guys like Guy usually do.
A couple nights later I was working the same doorway when this really pretty black girl stopped. She told me she was uncomfortable giving me money. She asked if I drank. I was honest.
“Well, if you come with me,” she said, “I’ll buy you a beer.”
She took me to a “country and western” saloon on the same cobblestone street that adjoins Amigos. There were horseshoe-shaped mirrors lining barn-board walls and wooden posts to fasten your palomino, should you happen to ride him inside. There was a two-dollar video jukebox playing contemporary country music (which isn’t country music) on flat-screen TVs mounted around the room. We sat down at the padded bar, and when the barkeep approached, Tonya told me to order what I wanted.
“I’ll have a Harpoon IPA.”
“PBR, Phil,” said Tonya. My beer was a 12 oz. bottle. Her PBR was a 32 oz. mug. It didn’t make me envious; I’m not a Blue Ribbon fan. As we sipped, we talked.
The guy she was dating was in the bar with us — sitting on the other side of her, actually, in conversation with the guy next to him. It wasn’t a heated argument, but it was a Red Sox/Yankees debate, so it could have easily turned ugly. It didn’t, but his focus was diverted.
Turning her face toward mine, Tonya discretely said, “I don’t want him to know, but I’m homeless.”
“I’m sleeping in my car.”
I was flabbergasted. This girl was pretty as a picture, fragrant as a flower, as adorned as a royal. Her hair and nails were precise, perfect; her attire was refined and unruffled. She looked far too sophisticated for this phony hillbilly joint.
“I sleep at his place occasionally” — she gestured backward with her thumb — “so I can shower after we … well, you know … but, yeah.”
“How do you afford to keep your car on the road?”
“I have a job,” she said. “I work.” Tonya was employed by a window manufacturing company, at its factory. “You want another beer?”
I did, but I didn’t want her to pay for another one now. I felt ashamed of the five-dollar bottle I already drank. She must’ve caught on to that, probably due to my hesitation. “These PBRs are only three dollars,” she said.
I ordered one. We talked awhile longer and she said she might be able to get me in at the factory. “How much does it pay?” I inquired.
“Minimum wage? I couldn’t afford to take a job unless it paid over seventeen an hour.”
She laughed. “What are you making now?”
“Not enough. But if I made enough to matter, it would be taken from me. They’d take so much for child support thatwhat’s left wouldn’t make a difference — I’d be working, but I’d still be broke and homeless.”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
“I’m not gonna do it,” I flatly stated. “I’d rather live in the streets than survive as a slave.”
I felt awkward right after I said that word, but she took no offense. We just talked about music and baseball and drank the ol’ Blue Ribbon. She offered me another one, but I told her I had to get back to work myself. She’d already spent $10 on my beers. For that sum I could’ve drank and smoked all day. I hope she enjoyed my company. I enjoyed hers.
About an hour or so later Trake came up to me on the sidewalk. “I wanna go to a bar,” he said. “I’m tired of walking around drinking.”
“I know just the place.” I led him to the saloon. As we approached, a bouncer blocked the doorway. “You two ain’t coming in here,” he said.
I didn’t tell the guy I’d just been in there. I didn’t say I’d been at the bar with the pretty girl sitting there right now. I didn’t tell him the music playing in his establishment was garbage, that he wouldn’t know country if he were riding a chestnut mare through Nashville and got run over by a black 1949 Cadillac with a ghost-white rider. I just walked away.
We went to the Point, where Joe Blaze was sitting on the bench with Johnny Green Eyes. Trake told them what happened at the saloon. “Let’s all go to Rosie’s,” Joe recommended.
So we did. We all sat at the bar and ordered food and draft beers. The barkeep, bouncer, servers — everyone was welcoming and nice to us. The food was great. I told a few jokes and had the whole crowd laughing. The bartender was topping off our drafts for free.
Then suddenly we were all being thrown out. I had no idea why. As we were leaving, Blaze explained: “Oh, Johnny called the bartender a cunt.”
I immediately lost my mind, didn’t even take a second to think, because it wasn’t necessary — that lady had been a saint to us. I grabbed Johnny by the back of his head with my left hand and introduced his pretty green eyes to my right fist, rapidly and repeatedly. He was known by the Crew as Johnny Black Eyes after that night.
The bouncer stuck his head out and spoke. “You,” he said, pointing to me, “would have been allowed back in, but not now. Don’t come back here again.”
Watching us through the large front windows, the entire bar had witnessed me pound Johnny’s face. They apparently found it brutish. The Crew deemed it fitting, especially the Mayor, Trake. In fact, Mark Stephen Thompson stated emphatically that my action had been proper and warranted. Johnny Black Eyes had it coming.
Chapter 6: You Can’t Do That
“How little we understand one another.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
The Griz and I were lounging in Deering Oaks, watching the ducks and enjoying the September sun, when Vodka Jay happened along. He had a half gallon of vodka (he usually did, hence the nickname). We all took a few shots and Jay laid down behind the bench Griz and I were reclining on. The grass was plush, soft with the life of summer. Jay must have found it comfortable — he dozed off pretty quickly.
Suddenly a police SUV came racing across the lawn from the Forest Ave. ramp, apparently in a hurry to reach us. Had the cop driven another 75 yards or so, he could have entered via the paved access road. Another SUV sped in from Park Ave., behind us, also driving across the greenery. They got out. “Dump the beer,” one said.
Griz looked at me. I looked at the Griz. We both looked back at the cops. We had no beer to dump. “What beer?” I asked.
“The beer behind you on the ground.” I looked over my shoulder and, sure enough, there was a beer standing upright in the grass. It was a few feet behind us, a few inches from Vodka Jay, who was still snoring. Griz got up and dumped it out.
“Now get your buddy up,” the officer ordered.
Griz got Jay up. Then we all gave the cops our names, as instructed. They contacted dispatch to check for warrants.
“This isn’t why I served my country,” one of the cops said.
I wanted to ask him why, if not for Liberty, he had served his country, but I didn’t. Instead I said, “Was it to have the freedom to drive across innocent lawns maintained by taxpayer dollars?”
“Grass is resilient,” he replied. “It’ll recover.”
“Well, I know it wasn’t for the freedom to go to the bathroom,” I said, pushing the point. “Lord knows there’s no place for the public to do that without being arrested.”
“There’s port-a-potties right over the hill there,” he said, and pointed.
Being fairly new to the city, I hadn’t been aware of this. “That’s good to know,” I said. “Thank you.”
His partner handed him some paperwork, which Officer Freedom handed out to us: Criminal Trespass Orders. This was my very first white paper. I looked at the Griz again, then back at the cop. “Well, I guess I won’t be utilizing the facilities over the hill there.”
We headed for the Old Port, where we found Joe Blaze sitting in front of Casco Bay Lines, across from the liquor store. He had 10 bucks and needed someone to run. He wasn’t allowed in the place.
The Griz came back with a bottle of Evan Williams. This is the ten-dollar bourbon. Joe Blaze actually prefers thisto Jack Daniels.
Joe is really a Jim Beam man, but Jim Beam isn’t a ten-dollar bottle. When Joe picked up a bottle o’ Beam, you could see the affection in his eyes. He’d tell you the history of the brand, describe its aging process and how the secret to Beam’s success is that it’s aged in oak barrels. It was true love.
The Griz and I had an affection for alcohol, but we were after the highest proof for the lowest price. We were not connoisseurs. In ideal circumstances we probably would have been drinking Don Julio, a very fine tequila. But we were on a bench in front of the ferry terminal and only had $10 between us. This would do.
Griz cracked the cap and had a long haul. Watching him take the first drink off a jug brought to mind a calf nursing from a baby’s bottle. He took to it like a mother’s sustenance. Griz passed it to Blaze, who was sitting in the middle of the bench. I took the third shot, capped the bottle, wrapped the paper bag tightly around its neck, and set it on the ground in front of me.
I went right to work: “I’ll tell ya a hell of a joke for a dollar or a string of riddles for fifty cents!”
I hooked the first guy that passed. He stopped for a joke. By the time this guy walked away he was laughing so hard his eyes were tearing up. He gave me two dollars instead of one. Moments like that made me feel like a million bucks. What I loved was the interaction between humans in very different circumstances — almost different species of animal. It proved we weren’t that different after all.
Not unlike Kid Rock — who ranks just below Jim Beam among Blaze’s favorite people — I can smell a pig from a mile away. The guy who popped up on us this day looked like he worked for the Geek Squad, rather than the police department.
In Portland, every spring, the downtown business association enlists cadets to walk beats around the heart of the city. They’re pretty easy to spot. They travel slowly and casually, in pairs. They’re usually about 20 years old and wear khakis with navy-blue sweater vests or windbreakers. If you see side-by-side khakis in the 21st century, it’s probably two of these wannabe cops in training. They can’t arrest you. I don’t even think they’re allowed to write tickets.
This guy was dressed like a cadet, but he was alone. Also, he’d been in a small city pick-up truck. And I had been working, telling jokes. I never saw him coming. He just materialized in front of me.
“You can’t be doing that,” he said.
I looked down at the bottle between my feet. It looked like the infamous paper bag that holds the bottle, but the bag was still securely wrapped around the neck. “Can’t be doing what?” I asked, nonchalantly.
“You can’t be asking people for money.”
This caught me more off guard than his sudden appearance had. “You can fly a sign. You can set out a hat. You can hold an actual pan in your hand,” he said, listing options like the condescending little prick that he was, “but you can’t ask people for money.”
“I didn’t ask him for money,” I explained. “I sold him a joke for a dollar. He tipped me a dollar, too. That’s a hundred-percent tip, so he must have enjoyed it.”
Now, being an ordinance officer — which is what this guy’s job title turned out to be — he probably could have tripped me up right there and called me out for not having a vendor’s license. I had just confessed to selling something on the street, albeit a sort of intellectual property.
But he couldn’t have been very intelligent, or very ambitious. This is thee Do Nothing Job of do-nothing jobs. Instead, he just repeated himself: “You can’t be asking people for money.” That was probably the catchphrase they’d instructed him to use that morning before they sent him out to burn the city’s gasoline in his cute little pick-up.
“It’s called ‘aggressive panhandling,’” he added, “and it’s against the law.”
“Did you see the guy’s face as he walked away?” I asked. “If you knew what joy was, you would have recognized that look. He walked away feeling better than he had when he walked up. He walked away laughing at something the two of us found funny. He also walked away feeling like he’d done something to help a fellow human being. Hell, he might go home and make love to his wife this afternoon, maybe even tell her that joke. What I sold him can’t be bought. I gave him a gift. It was a bargain.”
Unmoved by my mini-sermon, the officer said one last thing before he walked away: “This is the only time I’m warning you.”