Signs of the Times

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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."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse