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Panhandle With Care

We're all just a home away from homeless.

Several cars do slow as drivers take note of the sign and laugh. One driver even slaps a passenger on the shoulder and points to the sign. Nobody gives me any money, but at least they aren't ignoring me.

Then a beat-up brown Chevy pulls up. The fat, mustachioed driver who looks vaguely like Super Mario reads over my sign carefully, his lips moving with every word, and when he finally finishes, his face explodes into several violent and oddly beautiful shades of crimson. He points out the sign to his wife, and she appears just as flustered. In the back seat, two young children, a boy and a girl, start looking around, their craniums swiveling like bobbleheads as they try to determine what's triggered the change in the collective mood inside the car. Then the father rolls down the window.

"You think you're so fucking funny," Super Mario yells, fresh flecks of spittle escaping his mouth. "You fucking asshole! You fucking piece of shit. You fucking disrespectful fuck!"

Fuck, fuck, shit, damn, ass, fuck -- the man belches a neighborhood's worth of swear jars at me as I stand there with my Haggard sign at the intersection, saying nothing, doing nothing, just taking it. It's amazing how quickly the avoiding-eye-contact table has turned.

Mercifully, the light changes from red to green and the man zooms off, still swearing, still spitting, and now revealing a silver Jesus fish on the back of his Chevy.

Easy, fella, I think. Suck your minister's cock with that mouth?

I've had enough of this spot, and at 2 p.m. I move on. I drive toward another alleged panhandling mecca, the Benders Meadows exit off I-25, and spot someone soliciting at the intersection. I'm about to have my first panhandler-to-panhandler interaction! But as I get closer, I see that it's a pale-faced Castle Rock teenager wearing one of those jester snowboarding hats and trying to get a ride to Colorado Springs for a concert. Poor bastard probably just read On the Road for the first time and in his naive little mind thinks that hitchhiking now will prevent him from working at the Denver Tech Center in ten years.

I was once like him.

I move on to the median at the intersection of Bender Meadows Boulevard and Factory Outlet Road, another reported homeless hot spot. It's freezing. The snow is coming down steadily, and the wind blows sideways right into my eyes, trapping itself in my swarthy, hobo-chic beard. I watch shoppers leave the Factory Outlet parking lot, their fancy Suburbans stuffed with bags of crap to take back to their warm homes, give to their happy families. Goddamn capitalists.

No one gives me anything. Not for "Anything Helps," not for Haggard, not for beers. But on the bright side, all this standing around is great for bird-watching. In addition to the enormous ravens that haunt the Factory Outlet stores, I watch an American Kestrel circle the parking lot and, far off in the distance, spy what looks like a prairie falcon setting down on top of a light pole to survey the scene. It strikes me that I could use the birds for my hook; I could be the weird-bird homeless guy! You know, the guy always out there with binoculars, jotting down the birds he sees in his little notebook between rounds of begging and masturbating. I remember someone telling me that bird-feather hats are supposed to be big this fashion season, and I think, damn, two birds with one hobo. I could get rich off of this.

Then a car honks and snaps me out of my daydream. I run over to the Civic, which is filled with a bunch of cool-looking high school kids wearing rhinestone belts, jean jackets, band T-shirts.

"Hey, man," one of them asks. "You want some chips?"

Sure, I say, and the kid hands me a bag of Lays Classics. Another kid unearths a second bag. I take them both and stuff them in my vest pocket.

"God bless," I say, heading back to my median.

By now the wind has picked up something fierce, and when a train bellows in the distance, I take it as a closing whistle. I hurry back to my car, turn the heater on high and head back to my home in Denver. But I can't help wondering what I would do if I were actually homeless, standing in the bitter cold of Castle Rock with no money and just two bags of chips for provisions.

Although Castle Rock's attorney has cited Parker as a place that prohibits panhandling, that comes as news to the Parker Police Department. "That hasn't been something that we have to address," says a sergeant there.

In 2002, the Douglas County Commissioners did prohibit soliciting occupants of vehicles in roadways, and while the Castle Rock Police Department oversees that town's streets, the Douglas County Sheriff's Department is responsible for keeping panhandlers away from other roadways, particularly in unincorporated, well-to-do communities like Highlands Ranch and Stonegate, areas that encompass around 65 percent of the county. "Do we have as many panhandlers as Denver?" says Douglas County Deputy Ron Hanavan. "No. But do we have panhandlers? Sure. I think it comes back to a safety issue. If someone is standing in the middle of the road, or the side of the road, where they are relying on a light that is red and walking in between traffic, it's just not safe."

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