Panhandle With Care

We're all just a home away from homeless.

About a block down the way, a Denver police officer pulls up and tells me to "take it off the mall," which I happily do.

At 2:15, I set up shop at the intersection of Speer Boulevard and Auraria Parkway. I have a new sign, something folksy, something everyman, to let commuters know that I'm not a bad panhandler, I'm really an all-right kind of guy. I hold up "Potholes swallowed my home...need $$$" -- and miraculously, it works. I've only been standing on this grassy knoll a few minutes when a man with a head like a smokestack pulls up and hands me a five-dollar bill without saying a word. Five bucks! This way beats seeing that prairie falcon! It's almost as cool as seeing a peregrine falcon! Almost. And like that, the floodgates open.

I don't know if it's the pothole sign striking a nerve with Denver drivers or just my undeniable good looks, but over the course of the next forty minutes, I can't lose. Old women, young men, soccer moms, hipsters with plastic bags instead of windows, they all give me at least a dollar. No one hands me change; it's all crisp bills, sometimes several of them. By 3 p.m., I've got twelve bucks!

I decide to test my panhandler mojo at a new location, and remove myself to the intersection of Santa Fe and Colfax. Within twenty minutes, I've made another four bucks. Sixteen dollars in an hour is not too shabby, if I do say so myself. But I'm tired of saying so myself, so I decide to ask a few actual panhandlers to evaluate my performance.

I first attempt to chat with a guy at Speer and Colfax, a Hemingway-looking fellow I often see feeding the pigeons. I approach and ask if I can ask him a couple of questions. He stares at me with bloodshot eyes and shakes his head back and forth, no. I move on to John, a 43-year-old from Texas who is working an intersection not far from my hot spot. John tells me that he usually panhandles until he earns enough money to cover his $15 hepatitis C injection at Denver Health. I ask if he has to get one every day, but John either ignores the question or does not hear it. He tells me that he does not drink, that he does not do drugs, that he's just out here trying to make enough money to treat his sickness. I ask about his biggest score; he says it was $75 in one hit. I ask if any of the other panhandlers are territorial about their spots; he says only the drunks. I ask if Hemingway the pigeon-feeder is a drunk; he says he is. I give John about half of my earnings from the day and move on.

The next panhandler I talk to is across the street from Hemingway the pigeon-feeder. This guy won't give me his name, but he tells me that the media has got the homeless thing all wrong. "They say not to give money to homeless people, to give it to charities and that they'll give it to the people, but that's bullshit," he says. "I'm out here, I don't drink, I don't do drugs, I'm a veteran. What's wrong with giving me some change?"

I ask him what he would do with that change, but he doesn't reply. I give him the remainder of the money I made panhandling and hope he's not dumb enough to spend it on bus fare to Castle Rock.

The next day, as I drive to work, I pull up to the intersection of Sixth and Lincoln, where a panhandler is holding a sign about being a Native American down on his luck and needing some help. I instinctively go into over-compensator mode, playing with my CD player, holding the button down to fast-forward the CD as if there is something crucially important that I have to hear right now. I catch myself doing this and feel like a prick. I give the guy a dollar. He says, "God bless," and I drive on, smiling.

About an hour later, I get a text from a girl I know.

"This is going to sound weird," it reads, "but did I see you...panhandling?"

"That was me," I respond. "It was for a story."

She never replies.

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