Signs of the Times

John Johnston

The beggars of Denver call it "flying a sign." The endeavor's only requirements are a scrap of wood or cardboard, a magic marker, and a willingness to stand all day like a scarecrow in the sun, washing down the taunts of strangers with the exhaust from their cars.

Get a job? They have one. Flying a sign is usually more lucrative than laboring for minimum wage -- and more humiliating. It is abasement for profit. The more pitiful they appear, the more they profit. Senior citizens fare comparatively well, as do the crippled. Women pocket more than men. But most women share their earnings as part of a team, because they can't defend their spots alone. Flying signs is a cutthroat undertaking. Competitors fight over choice corners like cocaine slingers.

Not everyone flying a sign is homeless. Not everyone flying a sign is a junkie. But they all have a story, and their stories share the motifs of sudden calamity, enfeebling illness or injury, and estranged or deceased loved ones. None say they're simply drunk or lazy. All of them say they want to work a straight job, they're just too sick/old/crippled/trapped by circumstance to do so, and they have no one to offer them shelter from misfortune's storm.

They are sad stories. They are easy to believe. They could be lies. It's hard to tell.

On May 14, the Denver City Council unanimously approved a new ordinance that forbids peddling and panhandling on road medians. The ban will affect the guerrilla marketers who distribute pamphlets for the Vail Chamber of Commerce as well as the omnipresent coin collectors from the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ, who are uniformed like orderlies in a psychiatric ward and swear they're on a mission from God. Mostly, though, it will affect beggars with signs. The stated reason for the new law is concern for their safety. Medians are narrow. Cars are dangerous. Beggars must be forced off the medians for their own protection.

The ordinance takes effect July 31, but at least twice in late June, Denver police swept the intersection of Colfax and Colorado Boulevard, the city's epicenter for flying signs. Anyone flying a sign on the median was arrested and cited for violating Denver Municipal Code section 54-543, which requires pedestrians to walk only on the left side of a city street if not on a sidewalk. (Curiously, the white-suited missionaries, who frequently step off the medians to walk between cars rattling their cans, were allowed to continue.) The day after each sweep, the beggars were back, many of them carrying tickets for $39 that they'll go to jail for before they'll pay.

The men and women who fly signs argue that it's their right to be on the medians -- their choice, their risk to assume. They believe the actual intent of the new law is to bulldoze them out of sight, out of the minds of all the taxpayers at stoplights who are ill at ease with the grungy clothes and the missing legs and the scribbled tales of woe. There are hundreds of such tales on signs in Denver. Here are just seven.

The boys in the BMW have the top down in spite of the coal-colored thunderheads overtaking the sun. The coupe's driver casually extends a hand bearing a dollar bill. The greenback flaps in the wind. Scott reaches for it. The driver lets it go, deliberately, one second too soon. The dollar twirls and skips along the asphalt with Scott close behind, scuttling on all fours and snatching at it like a crab. The boys in the BMW chortle with delight. The dollar floats over a sewer grate, lands, teeters and falls in. "Down the hole!" the driver shouts. The car's occupants exchange a high five.

Scott straightens up and resumes his post across from the Brown Palace Hotel. "That's just goddamned mean," he mumbles. "They don't have to give me a gift if they don't want to, but that's just a goddamned mean thing to do to a guy."

He's been here since noon and has made just three dollars, which he spent on hamburgers at McDonald's. "This is a slow corner, but it's peaceful here," he says. "Colfax, Colorado, Alameda -- you can get more money on those streets, but you have to fight for your spot. Guys will just come up and pull a knife on you and tell you to move. Sometimes they'll take your money and your spot. I don't want any of that, so I come down here."

Scott says he grew up in Michigan. His parents had a farm. His dad's dead, his mom's broke, and his brothers don't talk to him anymore. "We went our separate ways, I guess."  

He's been in Colorado for two years. "I had a real good job when I first got here. I was the manager of a KOA campground up in the mountains. Then the lady who owned it went bankrupt, and my health went bad." Congestive heart disease, he says. Liver failure. Brain damage due to an aneurysm. He was married, but his wife left him after he got sick.

He says he'll fly his sign tonight until it starts to rain or he makes ten bucks, whichever comes first. "Ten bucks a day is what I consider to be bare, bare survival minimum. That's enough to eat on...maybe go in on a room with some guys and set aside a buck or two for laundry."

Drum rolls of thunder resound overhead. Scott's eyes go up. "I don't like the looks of that sky," he says. "I don't know if I'm going to make it."

He hoots. He waves. He puts one finger in each corner of his mouth and pulls his lips into a joker's grin. "I'm just gettin' my smile on," he says. "It's a lousy, fucked-up world, so I just try to get people to smile, because if I can smile, anyone can."

He says he lost his left leg in a motorcycle wreck ten years ago. "It was a hit-and-run. I got broadsided on I-70 out in Illinois." He was able to keep earning a living as a construction worker using a prosthetic leg. "Then lady luck turned into a real coldhearted bitch." First his prosthetic leg broke about a month back. "It just wore out." The very next day, he fell down getting off a bus and broke his other leg.

"Social Security cut me off because I was working full-time with my fake leg. It would take me too long to get back on the government rolls, so I'll be out here flying a sign until I get enough money together to buy myself a new leg."

He leans out into the road and waves to a pretty young thing in a Cabriolet. "How you doin'?" he says.

She smiles. "I'm good. How are you?"

"Well, the sun's shining and you're beautiful. Life could be worse."

"You don't see no 'homeless' on my damn sign," Tom says. "That's because I'm not homeless. I've got an apartment down the street, runs me $640 a month. I get $421 a month in disability. Now, you tell me: What the hell am I supposed to do?"

Tom swings his cane and whacks the worn-out cowboy boot on his right foot. "I got the bottom of my foot chopped off in the 'Nam," he says. "Bamboo trap." Tom swings the cane and whacks his other foot. "I lost my toes on this one to frostbite. I froze up elk hunting out by Cripple Creek."

He says he came out of Texas. He says he used to be a truck driver but had to stop because he developed glaucoma. Then he had a heart attack. Then he had a stroke. "I'm an old man. I can't work. I need a little help."

Every morning he flies a sign. A few of the rush-hour commuters nod at Tom as they pass. Most act as if he doesn't exist. "Every day, I see the same faces," he says. "It's a strange relationship."

Next year, Tom says, the Veterans Administration will finally start kicking down $1,140 a month. "The VA may be stingy, but when it comes your time, they'll put the money out. I just have to hold on until then."

The light turns red. Tom collects a dollar. The light turns green. Tom lights a cigarette and waits for the light to turn red. "Look here," he says. "All I got left is this watch. I got it before I went into the war. It doesn't keep the right time anymore, but that's okay. I'm not so interested in how much time is left in a day anymore."

The light turns red. Tom collects a dollar. The light turns green. Tom starts to cry. He smokes, sheds tears, and watches the pretenders pretend he's not there.

There is a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant across the street, and people keep pointing at it, yelling from their cars that Sharon should get a job there.

"I've got hepatitis C," she says. "I can't work with food."

Sharon has a black eye and purple bruises on both arms. She says she fell down. "And that's the truth, too." She is one of a crew of four people who work this intersection daily in shifts. The crew pools the money. They live in a motel room for $200 a week. They usually fly signs for two or three hours a day each, sometimes more. "It depends on how hungry we get and how generous people are that day."  

She moved to Denver from Michigan in 1969. "I went from being a kid on the streets to a grown woman on the streets. I don't remember a lot of how it happened. The '70s, especially. I don't remember much of the '70s."

Sharon knows about the new law. She just doesn't give a damn. "What are they gonna do, give me a ticket I can't pay? Throw me in jail? Three hots and a cot? Fine with me." Sometimes you have to fight in jail, she says, but you have to fight to fly signs, too. "This is our block, and we protect our territory."

Her boyfriend is the leader of the crew, and he does most of the fighting. He's not around right now. "He's probably taking a break in the park," she says. "We don't like to associate when we're working."

Dee says he would give his right nut for a job, except a surgeon already sliced it off six weeks ago.

"I got seminoma, and they took my testicle," he says. "I'm still going through chemo right now." That's why he can't work, he says. Some days he feels okay, but some days he's so sick from the radiation he can't get out of bed. "No employer wants to deal with that."

This is Dee's fourth day flying a sign, and it started out his best by far. He made $35 in less than two hours this morning, working a median at the frenzied intersection of Colfax and Colorado. "There was four of us out there, and we were all making out pretty good until the cops brought down the hammer."

Dee says a pair of squad cars pulled up and the police inside ordered all the sign flyers to the sidewalk. "Two of the guys ran, but they busted two of us -- me and this retarded guy everybody calls the Bird Man. They searched me and gave me a ticket for $39. I went from being $35 up to four bucks in the hole. I told one those cops, 'Don't give me a ticket, man, just give me a job.' I'll pick up trash for the city. I'll scrub toilets in the jail -- whatever."

Dee says he was raised in Kentucky and began working in the tobacco fields when he was just eight years old. "I've always been a worker. I was a good field hand. I'm a certified locksmith. I'm a jack of all trades, really, but I was a master locksmith until I got testicular cancer. Now I'm just some guy with one nut and a cardboard sign. It's hard on the pride."

Her story is one of love gone wrong. She weaves it well for anyone who asks. Many do. She tells it tightly, in less time than it takes for the light to change. This is strategic. It allows the inquirer a few seconds to find a dollar or a pinch of loose change if they so choose. Many do. Kim made $11 in one half-hour on a recent weekday afternoon.

This is what she would have you believe: She's a Colorado native. She had a house that she inherited and owned, free and clear. She lived there with her two young children and worked from home, selling Avon and stuffing envelopes. She met a man. He moved in. Two weeks later she discovered he had recently gotten out of prison after serving a sixteen-year sentence for armed robbery. She found out he was wanted, because he never checked in with his parole officer. She told him to pack up and get out. He did, but he came back one night when no one was home and burned her house to the ground. She had no insurance.

Kim says she flies her sign for twelve to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. And this much at least is true. She's a constant daytime presence in her regular spot across the street from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

"Saturdays are best, but I'm out here all the time," she says. "I don't even taste the exhaust anymore... Some of the people are out here flying signs to make enough to buy another rock or a pitcher of beer, but I'm out here for the right reasons, so I put in the hours."  

Cars whir past. A voice inside one yells, "It doesn't look like you're missing any meals." Another heckler hands Kim a McDonald's job application. She makes a fist and crumples it. "I make better money with my sign," she says.

His feet are swollen to the size of hams. He keeps one bare for all the drivers to see. "I have 'elephant's foot,' Robert says. "The blood goes down to my legs, but there's not enough pressure in my circulation to get it all back up. I've been in a wheelchair all my life."

He makes $90 a day. It takes him nine hours, on average. "I come here every day. This is my life." He stays in motels. He eats alone. "I see all kinds of people, but I don't really know anyone."

Robert says the police hassled him this morning. "They handcuffed me to my wheelchair, and they were going to give me a ticket, but some people from the Coalition for the Homeless started arguing with them, and they backed off."

He says he'll obey the new law once it goes into effect. "I obey all laws on the books," he says. "I try to be a good citizen. I'll obey it, but I don't agree with it. I think it's just another way the city council gave the police to push the homeless around."

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