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."
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."
And the Jesus sticker?
"Well, I do dig Jesus," he says. "But on the streets, a lot of preachers like to stand around you and share prophecies. And they block foot traffic. So all I do is show them this and say, 'I already got Jesus.'"
A skinny black man carrying a boombox and a crumpled McDonald's bag leans over. "Play something!" he orders.
So Mike strums a blues tune while the black guy bounces and warbles: "I've got a gal who lives on the hill! She won't do it, but her sister will..."
The song ends, and the man stumbles away.
"That happens a lot," Mike says, "and it's really irritating."
But irritation comes with the pocket change. Although Mike knows more than 200 songs in addition to his own works, he says people always want the same ones: "'Hotel California,' 'Bobby McGee,' 'House of the Rising Sun' -- especially in New Orleans. Anything by Bob Seger. Anything by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I even had to learn Britney Spears -- an acoustic version of 'Oops...I Did It Again,' which is actually pretty catchy."
Still, Mike has his limits. "I will not play 'Margaritaville,'" he says. "Absolutely not. I will sell out to a certain extent, but I do have some integrity."
So do most panhandlers, he says, who are "honest bums" like him. "I respect people's right not to give me money. If people don't like my drug song, I respect that completely. I won't bother them. I don't want to annoy anyone. I want to be liked."
He takes a long pull from his Gatorade bottle.
"Now, I don't want to come off like a disgruntled anarchist -- which I am -- but poor people exist," he says. "You can't get rid of them by banning panhandling."
Almost on cue, a burly man in a cut-off sweatshirt hands him three paper sacks and says, "This guy just told me to give you these sandwiches."
"That was mighty nice of him," Mike says. "This is the best gift a bum can receive."
A moment later, a kid wearing a backward baseball cap offers a carton of nachos topped with ground beef, sour cream and black olives. "Dude, I don't have time to finish them," the kid says. "Want 'em?"
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Denver deserves its generous reputation, Mike says. Even with the heat and the new panhandling ordinance, he's collected $30 and dinner to go. He might stop by again on his way back to Texas.
And after that, he plans to hang up his guitar. He's tired of worrying about cops, yuppies with Terminator shades and finding a place to sleep. He's had a lot of laughs, but he misses the finer things in life. Air conditioning. Cold tap water. Office girls.
"Let's face it," Mike says. "You just can't meet nice girls being a street bum."