I don't know why the intersection and off-ramp panhandlers appear en masse in St. Petersburg during the spring and summer, but they do. One might think the fall and winter month would offer better working conditions. Maybe they've taken note of that weird Southern phenomenon characterized by the air conditioning systems of most cars conking out right around early April, resulting in a multitude of rolled-down driver's-side windows.Whatever the case, every year the heat brings with it a marked increase in the number of persons standing or sitting roadside, holding cardboard signage. And every year, the sense of organization becomes more pronounced; you'll see the same guys working opposite ends of the same intersections during peak traffic hours, or two or three who work the same corner, dividing sign-time into shifts.
And every year, we engage in conversations with various friends and coworkers about these less fortunate souls, always eventually getting around to the central, quintessentially American question:
"I wonder how much those guys make in a day?"
Various papers across the country — including the St. Petersburg Times — have quoted numbers given them by homeless individuals over the years, but who knows? A person who must ask strangers for money in order to survive might have any number of reasons for providing inaccurate information. Resentment toward society. Mental illness. The fear that the real numbers might dissuade some citizens from contributing ("50 bucks a day?! You sure don't need my two bits, Mr. Rockefeller!"). The bottom line is, there's really no way to know for sure.
Unless, of course, one were to stake out a corner one's own self. But even then, the chances of achieving a result analogous to the real-life situation of someone who has to do it every day are basically nil. Still, it would be interesting to see what happens.
Which is why, on this blistering Monday late afternoon, local spoken-word artist Lucious P. Slugworth is standing where an exit from I-275 N. merges with 54th Avenue N., holding a cardboard flap that says MUST GET TO HOLLYWOOD FOR SCREEN TEST.
Lucious and I have decided to try a little experiment and attempt to raise a little money for the homeless in the process. Armed with six different cardboard signs, we've commandeered a busy, unoccupied corner at the height of rush hour; he'll spend the next hour and a half or so exhibiting each slogan for an equal amount of time. We realize we can't replicate exactly the scenario of a truly needy person panhandling, and don't try to. To do so, we decided, would be in extremely poor taste. Neither of us looks particularly down-and-out, and our signs are written expressly to avoid implying that we're homeless, or that we're mocking those who are.
The best we can hope for, really, is to get a feel for how drivers react to the now-familiar sight of a bearded man with a sign in his hand by the side of the road, and make a little scratch, which we'll pass on to somebody who really needs it. (Though I can't help daydreaming, Walter Mitty style, about succeeding beyond our wildest dreams, and going on to found a nonprofit organization that provides free image consultation and creative cardboard copy to rookie panhandlers.)
Our location, just east of where 54th Avenue passes over the freeway, is ideal; Lucious mentions that there's usually a guy working the other side of the street, though he's not around today. The light turns red. The cars stack up. No one rolls down their window, or indeed even acknowledges Lucious' presence.
"A lot of people just won't look at you. If you're right here," he says, pointing at the car nearest him, at the head of the queue waiting on the light, "you don't look. He sees me, and he knows I see him, but he's trying hard to not see me."
We confess and compare our own techniques for not seeing the sign-guys. Mine usually involve diligently searching for a better song on the radio or looking for my sunglasses, even though I'm wearing them.
After 20 minutes, we switch to another sign. No one has donated, though several have read the sign carefully, mouthing the words. The second slogan, NEED BUS TICKET TO ST. PETERSBURG, FL, elicits more crowd participation than its predecessor.
"I got a 'you're a fucking idiot' from some gangstas in an SUV," Lucious says proudly.
A couple more helpful motorists bother to point out that St. Pete is "right over there." Twenty more minutes, countless cars and a dozen red lights later, we've yet to make a penny. We're covered in sweat and developing ever more empathy for those who do this regularly, just so they can get a McBurger or feed their addiction or rent a motel room that stinks of piss and futility.
And so it goes. None of our angles, from the urgent need to get somewhere (PALATKA OR BUST) to existential abstraction (WHERE DOES THE POLLEN GO?), yields more than snickers and obvious, determined attempts at rendering Lucious invisible. One sign is vetoed at the last minute due to the presence of the word "DISABLED," but I suspect they all could be written in Swahili and a majority of drivers wouldn't notice. They see a figure as they're coming off the freeway, and by the time they hit the light they've blocked the figure out. Even the boom-to-bust connotations of my personal favorite, I OWE MY RECORD COMPANY $1 MILLION, fails to connect (though one gentleman who looks eerily like he could've been in New Edition mouths the words "me, too" before speeding off).
As the traffic thins out, Lucious and I pack it in, neither flush with donations nor closer to knowing how much "those guys" make in a day. I certainly hope it's more than we made for them, though. However a body ended up relying on stoplight charity, it's more work, and more of a pain in the ass, than it appears to be.
And I wasn't even holding the sign.
Contact Scott Harrell at 813-739-4856 or [email protected].