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Beggar's Banquet

Brother, can you spare some nachos?

It's hot out, damn hot. The lunch crowd is surly, the mall cops are cruising, and Denver City Council just banned "aggressive" panhandling. But none of that changes the fact that Mike the Hippie Bum needs your money.

"Whatever I make today will finance my next adventure," he says. "I'll take what I can get."

Mike is 21 years old, from New Orleans by way of Austin, and he's headed to the Rainbow Family's gathering this week in Montana. Ban or no ban, Denver has a national reputation as a great place to panhandle. So on his way north, Mike grabbed his gear -- a guitar held together by electric-blue tape, a Gatorade bottle filled with warm tap water, a floppy black golf hat -- and found a spot outside the Rite Aid on the 16th Street Mall.

The only panhandler in sight, Mike now sits cross-legged in the shade near the curb, watching office girls clatter by. "Hey!" says a yuppie wearing Terminator shades. "Play some music. Earn your money."

Mike ignores him.

Two hours have passed since he sauntered over from I-25. He's sung every tune in his songbook and earned every penny of the ten bucks he's collected so far. But that's the thing about begging, Mike says. Although most people think it's as easy as extending a change cup -- the preferred technique for some of his brethren, the ones who are probably targeted by the Denver ban -- panhandling is a craft that requires practice to perfect.

The best panhandlers are dedicated professionals who have spent years mastering the intricacies of timing, approach and breath mints. Look at his own career, Mike suggests. Although he's been on the road for only five years, he's got to be one of the best beggars around. And he's seen them all, from flag-waving Vietnam vets to handicapped ladies in wheelchairs to fire-breathing mimes. Where he comes from, panhandlers are as common as fire hydrants. To survive the Big Easy, you have to have style, finesse and personality. "Or at least a gimmick," Mike advises.

So in New Orleans, for example, a savvy crackhead will approach a passerby, size him up and say, "I'll bet you a dollar I can guess where you bought your shoes."

"Okay. You've got a bet," is the usual response.

At which the crackhead proclaims: "The United States! You bought your shoes in the United States! Okay, gimme the dollar!"

Mike's gimmick is his catalogue of 25 original panhandling tunes, including his surefire anthem, "Hippie Bum," which goes something like this: "Hippie bum, hippie bum, I'm a hippie bum. If you've got some dollars, won't you give me one. Thank you, thank you, I wanna thank-thank you. Now I can go out and buy some booze..."

Hearing Mike sing this, a woman wearing red sunglasses stops in her tracks. "For that," she says, "I'll give you a quarter. At least you're honest."

And honesty is almost as important as breath mints, Mike says. Although some panhandlers tell tall tales about Gulf War syndrome, orphaned children and lost jobs, he prefers the simple truth. Say, "Give me some money so I can buy some drugs."

"It's fairly refreshing to see someone like me," Mike says. "I've been told many times that I add flavor to a place. I consider myself an entertainer. For every dollar I get, I make twenty people laugh. I've had groups of people walk by and say, 'Hey. There's the Hippie Bum!' In the French Quarter, I'm practically a celebrity."

He's on the streets by choice (in the tradition of his idol, Woody Guthrie). He's not addicted to drugs or alcohol (although he does enjoy a hit of marijuana now and then). He doesn't suffer from a mental disorder (aside from chronic romanticism). And he reads poetry.

"Dr. Seuss," he says. "I consider him to be the great American poet, with the possible exception of Whitman."

Clink!

A big woman with a toddler drops a coin into Mike's hat.

"See that?" he proclaims. "That woman just gave me a penny. But you know what? It doesn't matter. Whatever you get, you have to be thankful. Even if it's a penny."

Honesty and gratitude aren't the only desirable traits, however. "A lot of the panhandlers aren't going about it the right way," Mike says. "They'll walk up to unlikely prospects. For instance, if you're some dirty bum and walk up to a bunch of women in pantsuits and perms, you're not going to get a dime."

Mike steers clear of both pantsuits and grime -- most of the time, anyway. "There's a fine line between clean and dirty," he explains. "If you're too clean, people will look at you and say, 'Why are you out here panhandling?' And if you're too dirty, they'll say, 'Get the hell away from me.' I'm presentable, but I'm definitely not affluent."

Mike's black beard is scruffy, his black ponytail is scruffy, his black jeans are splattered with mud, his black combat boots are scuffed and worn. Even his guitar-strap button -- with the motto "Spare Change: Saving up for a blow job and a massage" -- is faded. "Let me explain that," Mike says. "A guy in Austin wanted to give me something, so he went into a head shop and stole this. And I take gifts very seriously. So I feel obliged to keep it, even though I feel it's misogynistic."

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