Signs of the Times

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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."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse