Signs of the Times

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."