A Holiday Catalog of Bumming
Bob Mauer has claim to prime panhandling real estate. He hustles on a small patch of grass near the Broadway offramp of Interstate 35. He carries a crumpled cardboard sign that reads “HELP HOMELESS VET. Thank you!” He wears a U.S. Army logo shirt and fatigue pants to make that image bankable. Mauer works the corner in shifts with two other vagabonds. At night, they share profits to buy smokes and booze. They sleep beneath a nearby overpass, huddled together for warmth.
So when an intruder comes along, Mauer has to protect his turf. This happens regularly, as it did during a recent afternoon at rush hour. Mauer, 50, didn’t even notice the guy at first. The vagrant, in his mid-40s, wore a camouflage jacket and jeans, obviously working the war-hero angle, too. Mauer finally noticed the guy because drivers who stopped at a nearby signal — the ones who usually look away and make sure their doors are locked — were peering past Mauer intently.
He spun to face the new guy.
“How long you been here?” the new guy shouted over the din of the highway. But something about him was off. His head stayed cocked to one side, resting against his shoulder. A patchwork of scabs plastered his face. He reeked of piss. “You got a sign?” the guy added hopefully, holding his own ratty homemade placard like a bargaining chip.
“I don’t know you!” Mauer shouted as the man stepped closer. “Get away from me!” He balled his hands into fists and stepped forward.
The intruder blinked. He ranted incoherently and spun in small semicircles, like a puppy that’s just discovered its tail. He stumbled back across the street and into the shadows beneath Bartle Hall.
This is the first rule of panhandling: Territory must be re-established daily. And once occupied, it is kept only by brute force.
Other rules: The best hours to “work” are when the rest of the world isn’t, rush hours and weekends. Primo work conditions are when the weather is bad, because standing in a winter storm is sure to evoke sympathy. Success is contingent on a gimmick, the street equivalent of a straight-up sales pitch.
Everyone can be categorized by a type of solicitation. Con men fake injuries or use standard come-ons. Recall the line favored by infamous Plaza panhandler Jerry Mazer, who asks passers-by for a “down payment on a cheeseburger.” Beggars put out a hand and proposition their marks directly. Cup rattlers push their message subtly, by jingling for change. Guys who “fly a sign” use cardboard to sell their plight, billboard style. They compete with more legitimate sidewalk entertainers and charity organizations, all vying for your change.
‘Tis the season to be giving. With this in mind, the Pitch has created a panhandling primer with the real stories behind some of those with their hands out.
Warning: Speaks gibberish; has no concept of personal space.
Tenure: Three years “on and off”
Tools: Cardboard sign: “Need Will Work. Can You Help. Bless you.”
Hangout: Center island of 47th Street and Belleview intersection
Smells like: Liquor
Odd detail: Won’t make eye contact
Formal education: High school, some college “out East”
Previous gig: Cook
Average take: No comment
Best take: $20 from one person
Justification: “I’m a person of jobs. I’ll do any construction, anything that comes along. It can’t be anything about narcotics because something with some shit just went wrong.”
Best street Zen: “I drink during the day and especially this time when it’s chilly. It’s like I find a hole and get warm.”
Tenure: Two years
Distinction: Cup rattler
Tools: A plastic bucket to sit on and a paper cup from any garbage can; each cup usually lasts a week.
Hangout: In front of The Gap on the Plaza
Smells like: Hangover
Odd detail: Wears a shiny silver watch.
Formal education: Lincoln College Preparatory Academy
Previous gig: Custodian for American Sweeping
Average take: $150 to $200 a day
Best take: $350 in seven hours
Trade secret: “I burn a hole in the bottom of it [the cup] for good luck. The change tends to rattle a little bit more with the hole in it.”
Justification: “I’m not homeless. This is a job. I have a $78,000 home. I come out here. I sit on my bucket eight to 12 hours a day. I average 150 to 200 bucks a day. No job is gonna pay me that. So why not sit on my ass and get tax-free money? Everything I have on now was purchased from The Gap by customers. That’s three sweaters, these jeans and this new plaid jacket. I’ve paid for the mortgage on my house, for light, gas, Dish Network and two cell phones.” He commuted here in his Cadillac until he was spotted by a regular contributor, who got angry. He now gets dropped off and picked up to preserve his cover.
Claim to fame: “Most of the people on the Plaza call me by my first name. I am one of the best, most professionalest panhandlers the Plaza has ever seen.”
Best street Zen: “Respect goes a long ways. You have to be kind, courteous, polite. And if people don’t give you anything, still say thank you.”
Name: Bob Mauer
Tenure: About three years; he took time off to go to prison for aggravated assault, possession of an illegal weapon and burglary after he crawled into someone’s unlocked garage. “I was just looking for a place to sleep,” he says.
Distinction: Sign flyer
Tools: Camouflage jacket, candle for when it gets dark and cardboard sign that reads “HELP HOMELESS VET. Thank You.”
Hangout: South side of the Truman Road and Broadway intersection
Smells like: R&R Whiskey and Roll Rich roll-your-own smokes
Odd detail: Wears Army shirt but says he was in Navy.
Formal education: Eleventh grade; machinist shop in prison
Previous gig: Oil-rig worker
Average take: $20 a day
Best take: “Yesterday, I made 28 bucks in about an hour, and that was enough. We left and got some cigarettes and some whiskey and shrimp over there in the River Market. We cooked them down there on the grill [in Case Park]. One night, we did chicken wings.”
Trade secret: He points beneath the I-35 overpass. “Some of us live down by the bridge over there. We take turns, giving each one of us 30 minutes or so. I look for single people in cars. I think people are more giving when they are by themselves. What it is is, they don’t have someone arguing, ‘Why you giving them money?'”
Justification: “It’s either this or I go around and try to bum money from people. That’s more degrading than this.”
Claim to fame: “Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night because some guy was stealing [my friend] Emily’s purse, so I broke a bottle of whiskey over his head. But he still ran off with it. Then there was no more whiskey.”
Best street Zen: Sleep near the railroad tracks. “The guys on the railroad train will come down and throw an eight-pack of water out to us. It’s great because you wake up in the morning and you are thirsty. You know what I mean?”
Best street Zen, part two: “If you find someone else’s backpack stashed, don’t ever take that, because it is someone else’s stuff. What if you run into them again? If you ain’t got nothing, why take it from someone else? Usually all it is is dirty clothes.”
Name: Pierce Vallier
Tenure: Fifth year of seasonal work
Distinction: Salvation Army worker
Tools: Company-issued wooden-handled brass bell, beanie, apron, name tag, red bucket on a stand, sign with the Salvation Army shield that reads “Doing The Most Good”
Hangout: In front of the Plaza LattéLand on 47th Street
Smells like: Coffee
Formal education: High school, some college
Previous gig: Worked part time for the AARP.
Average take: He doesn’t know because the bucket is locked
Best take: “When I worked that corner right there [by Sharper Image], it was hundreds and hundreds of dollars. The bucket was so stuffed, I had to call someone to empty it.”
Trade secret: “A lot of people are conditioned to the bell. Like Pavlov’s dog, they know to donate.” He shakes the bell, singing “Give up the money!”
Justification: “I needed the work. It was dependable. Working conditions are good, stuff like that. It’s pretty hard to get people to volunteer 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I think I’m making $8 [an hour]. And they always give you gloves.”
Side biz: Released his own spoken-word CD, The Blues 101, which he carries with him.
Claim to fame: “Just getting people to donate is a great achievement because it gets money to people to help. Christmas brings out a lot of people, but Salvation Army gives the money to people who really need it.”
Political affiliation: “Mostly, I’m a Democrat. I worked the polls the last four years. I’ve worked [Emanuel] Cleaver’s first campaign for Congress, canvassing.”
Best street Zen: “Dress warm and always wear enough clothes because if it gets warm, you can take something off, but if you don’t have enough, you can’t put something on.”
Tenure: About a year
Distinction: Cup rattler
Tools: A plastic bucket to sit on, given to him by Vincent, and a cup from the trash
Hangout: In front of Tommy Bahama on the Plaza
Smells like: Fresh air
Odd detail: Clean clothes, usually shaven; carries ornately beaded walking stick that he made himself.
Formal education: High school, some community college
Previous gig: Was laid off after 9/11 from his job as an airplane factory worker; a former Air Force mechanic (claims to have been shot in the stomach “during maneuvers”).
Average take: $30 a day
Best take: $45 in a day: “It was a Saturday, and there were a lot of people.”
Trade secret: Rather than rattle a cup, he asks directly. “A lot of it is eye contact. A lot of people, if they are not looking at you, they are not seeing what you are doing. Open your mouth. If you are asking for something with a closed mouth, you won’t get fed. A lot of it depends on how many people you talk to. You are playing a game of odds. A lot of this boils down to a gimmick.”
Justification: “This can happen to everyone. I’m living proof of it. This can be considered a job, just like anything else. What I do with the money is survive.”
Side biz: He reaches into a backpack and pulls out a fistful of mall-kiosk-like beaded necklaces. “I make jewelry. I’d like to do this to support myself. I try to when I can. I use turquoise, amethyst and silver. When the fountain is going, I sit out there and I try to sell stuff.” But when the fountain is turned off in the winter, his clients disappear. “I try to do it honestly before I do this.”
Claim to fame: To be part of a time-honored profession. “Regardless about how society feels about this or how you feel about this, it’s been around since the beginning of time. What are the oldest professions in the Bible? Prostitution and beggars.”
Political affiliation: “Independent, because I don’t like the way they treat this planet. The pollution of this Earth means all we’re doing is polluting ourselves. It’s because there’s so much emphasis on money. Without it, you’re nothing. With it, you’re something.”
Best street Zen: “Whether you are paying the rent or paying the dope man, when people give from their heart, they are being loving.”
Name: James ³J-Wizz² Hathorn
Tenure: He started “breakin'” when he was 12 years old. “Over the years, I just pretty much refined my own style.”
Distinction: He dances like he’s being electrocuted.
Tools: CD player wired to 23-year-old “ghetto blaster,” water jug, sweat towels, business cards that read “Street Dancer 4 Hire. Cheap But Not Free”
Hangouts: In front of Burberry on the Plaza, First Fridays and Westport on weekend nights.
Smells like: Pipe smoke and sweat
Odd detail: Wears matching mauve slacks and button-up shirt; smokes pipe tobacco between sets.
Formal education: “Yeah, I ain’t no dummy.” Says he was valedictorian of Lawrence Gardner High School for young men from the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka; some community college at Penn Valley.
Previous gig: None
Average take: $100 per weekend
Best take: $600 in one weekend during the Plaza Art Fair
Trade secret: “I came up with this philosophy: People will give if they want to. For a while, when I started doing this, people wanted to take my picture but not tip me. I would stop and smile at them and say, ‘If I’m good enough for a picture, I’m good enough for a dollar.'”
Justification: “I can’t have a job. I receive disability.”
Side biz: Private lessons, $15 a session
Claim to fame: “Last year was my first major competition at the Best of the Best on 24th and Prospect. I had the talent, but I didn’t have the skill. Out here, it’s halfway disciplined. There are a lot of moves you can’t pop. It’s more of a grab-me-by-the-face-and-shake-me kind of style. My expression is always changing.” He points to a Highwoods Properties security car as it rolls past. “Even they love me.”
His rules: No pics without tips. Wait to ask questions until after the performance.
Best street Zen: “I get all kinds of remarks from people like, ‘He looks like he’s having a seizure. He looks like he’s smoking crack.’ I just ignore them and let them go on their way. I’m like, ‘You can’t do it.'”
Name: Nancy Keyes
Tenure: Eight years
Tools: Clarinet, travel mug of coffee, pink lawn chair, a hubcap for a bucket and a paper sign that reads “Please Help Feed Family of 3.”
Also plays: Soprano saxophone “like Kenny G”
Now playing: “The Little Drummer Boy” — “Right now, I’m pretty much doing Christmas stuff.”
Favorite song: The Pink Panther theme
Other crowd pleasers: “Moon River,” “Georgia on my Mind,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” — although, she says, “The local meteorologists don’t care for that one!”
Hangout: In front of Z Gallerie on the Plaza
Smells like: Cigarettes
Odd detail: Smokes a Vortex Light between songs.
Formal education: High school, two years of trade school for “medical assistance”
Previous gig: Telemarketing — “It was a hassle.”
Average take: $30 a night
Best take: $200 from one person — “That was actually a priest that I knew.”
Justification: She says she pays the rent for an apartment at Rainbow Towers, which she shares with her disabled husband and a cousin.
Claim to fame: “I know 50 songs, easy.”
Political affiliation: “Not Republican. I tell you one thing, I definitely was happy to see the Republicans out of the office. Anytime the Republicans are in office, bad things happen.”
Best street Zen: Music is tough any way you go. Even if you play in clubs, it’s tough. Be patient. It’s just like fishing. Sometimes you can be having the worst luck you ever had, and something will happen.
Name: Billy Ray Harris
Tenure: Seven years
Tools: No cup, just a straightforward question, “Can you help the homeless today, sir?”
Hangout: Slumps against the garbage can near Tommy Bahama on the Plaza
Smells like: Garbage
Odd detail: Wears perfectly white sneakers.
Previous gig: House painter
Claim to fame: “I was already written about by The Kansas City Star [in 2004].”
Best street Zen: “I just got here, so I’m usually stressed when I first start.”
Name: Ron Johnson
Tenure: At least three years
Tools: Curious George doll strapped to a white basket
Hangout: In Westport and in front of Cinemark Palace on the Plaza movie theater
Odd detail: Often receives coupons and gift cards for McDonald’s — “One guy bought my shoes off my feet. That was bizarre.”
Formal education: High school
Previous gig: “I was a crash test dummy. No way. I’m making a joke. I sold plasma.”
Average take: “I don’t think there is such a thing as an average. There are too many variables, too much fluctuation.”
Best take: $160 in one night — “I don’t know. It just happened. There is no rhyme or reason.”
Trade secret: “They acknowledge me first. Then I acknowledge them.”
Secret weapon: Carries a copy of City Ordinance 50-151, which states the rules for panhandling. “I’ve been run off this door before by public safety. ‘Public safety,’ by the way, is a misnomer.”
Justification: “I just don’t put myself in the same category as these street people. I live by a value system. I don’t take money under false pretenses. I don’t sit here and pretend I’m crippled or I need a cheeseburger. I don’t consider what I do panhandling or soliciting or begging. It’s quite simple. I sit here with my monkey, and when people see the monkey, they smile. They laugh. I’m giving them something. And if they are so compelled, they give me something. I call that fair exchange. It’s no different than people who come down here and throw money in the fountains. In a way, it’s a form of entertainment for them. I just sit here and let people react. It’s all about the human condition.”
Side biz: “I’m a poet.” He says his work has been displayed at the Starbucks outlets on 39th Street and in Westport. “Unfortunately, that’s not a steady income. Right now, I have writer’s block.”
Claim to fame: Made enough to rent a room for the winter.
Best doggie bag: “I’ve had people bring me steaks as thick as a book, pork chops that were tasty. The Plaza has some really good food down here.”
Best street Zen: There are people out here who think they are more important if they can keep other people beneath them. The thing about power is everyone wants it, and people who get it abuse it. But some of them wouldn’t survive one night out here.
Best street Zen, part two: “If a man slaps you on the back with one hand, he’s picking your pocket with the other. That doesn’t just apply to beggars. It applies to corporations. There is no shortage of treachery.”
Name: John Cook
Tenure: One year
Distinction: Sign flyer
Tools: Cardboard sign inth red marker: “Food.”
Hangout: North side of the intersection of Main and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard
Smells like: Exhaust fumes
Odd detail: Sign requests food, but he will take money.
Formal education: High school
Previous gig: Unknown
Average take: $4 a day
Best take: $30 on Christmas Day last year — “They left dollar bills instead of change.”
Trade secret: “I’m 5 foot 8, I weigh 240 pounds and I’m running a food sign. Now if you can’t figure that out, I can’t help you.”
Justification: “The guys on the Plaza aren’t really homeless. You ought to be writing about that.”
Claim to fame: “I’m the only one that needs food. I got diabetes. That’s why I run a food sign. The women bring me bananas and candy.”
Best street Zen: “If it’s home food, you don’t touch it. You get razor blades. If it’s Wendy’s or McDonald’s, you check it anyway, because they have put broken glass in there.”
Name: Carlos Trejo
Tenure: Three months
Distinction: Sign flyer
Tools: Camouflage jacket and cardboard sign that reads “Home-Less Vet (311 MOS). Needs-Help. God Bless. Food Food.” 311 MOS stands for his military occupation specialty; he says he was an infantry rifleman at Camp Pendleton in California.
Hangout: Intersection of Roanoke Parkway and Ward Parkway
Smells like: Brush Creek, because he sleeps under a nearby bridge.
Odd detail: He stands near an orange construction placard with an arrow pointing toward him.
Formal education: High school
Previous gig: Restaurant worker
Average take: $5 every 30 minutes — “Down here, I usually don’t make money [to save]. I make money and then go eat.”
Best take: $35 — “I was done for the day.”
Trade secret: “I just stand firm.”
Justification: He got stranded while hitching from California to Florida.
Claim to fame: “If I get 10 or 12 bucks, I don’t come back all day. I just sit in McDonald’s.”
Political affiliation: “The ‘crats, I guess. It really doesn’t matter to me. It’s the same old bullshit. They are being told what to do.”
Best street Zen: “Those people who drive BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, stuff like that, they aren’t going to help you. I think they are so caught up in their deals, stuff like that. It is the normal, middle-class people [who help].”