We used to call it, “The Vacation Fund”, but it was just all my left over change, splayed out on the counter top, day after day, collected in an empty illy coffee can.
As I prepared my incredibly heavy change can, to take to the supermarket, to pour into the machine that turns it into a cash receipt for 10%, I thought about this guy I see almost every morning. I thought about how grateful I was to have a full change jar and a car to drive to the supermarket, so I can pour my metal into that big green criminal machine in exchange for the receipt that I can cash in for whatever. I thought about the days when I had no car, lived under the stairs in a tenement building and traveled with the poor and homeless by bus.
As I drove and thought about this homeless guy, I wondered what he was up to in the evening as I only saw him in the morning. Sometimes he’d be standing there on the median by the stop light, eating an Egg Mc Muffin, that some driver obviously gave him, or maybe not so obviously. I wondered if he had a name and where he was from and if he had any siblings, any pets and what was the story of his life that led him to this corner?
I wondered things most folks don’t wonder. Like when we get the Readers Digest/Publishers Clearing House Contest in our mail boxes, that says we may have won a million dollars. And we feel like that envelope that looks hand addressed was just sent to us, when in reality, was sent out to millions of people, designed to look like you were the only one who got it. Similarly, I wonder if each of these homeless folks are designed by someone, to look like they are lost and alone, tugging at our heart-strings, but are really mass-produced and presented to us for someone’s profit.
I wondered about the back story about this homeless guy. Did he pick that corner? Did he write that sign? Did someone tell him to hang that cross out over his shirt to gain religious sympathy? Did someone instruct him on how to hold the sign? Or is there an underworld of organizers that send out this army of homeless people. Maybe they are sophisticated and organized and the homeless bosses tell these folks where to stand in exchange for a percentage of what they collect?
As I drove into the supermarket, I passed another one/homeless girl, standing by a stop sign, aiming at all the folks leaving the supermarket parking lot. I thought it odd how I was thinking about the homeless guy, as I was in process to cash in my change jar, and there was another one. I drove past her, only half thinking about the oddness of it all. But when I got into the store with my jar… there was another sign on the machine. That sign said that the machine was out-of-order! I took it as “a sign” to reverse the order of things and get back out there and snap some pictures of this homeless gal. It would be good for me, as I get to chart this story, and good for her, as I planned to slip her a few bucks. Good for everyone! I drove back to the end of the parking lot close to where she was standing, opened my trunk, unzipped my camera bag, switched lenses and placed the machine gun around my neck. I thought I was justified in stealing her image as I was gonna pay her. Meantime, my entrepreneurial design brain wouldn’t shut up.“Who wrote that freak’n gorgeous sign?” I thought. “So perfectly written in all caps. So perfectly cut and printed and positioned, with a brand new, juicy black marker! If she made this sign, at least she could be a sign maker, or work in a frame shop and cut cardboard. Efficiently crafted and copy directed, two words, designed to get your sympathy and your money. Such brevity and efficiency of language. She could even be a copy writer. Are there graphic standards for how to phrase these signs? Size requirements? Directions for readability to put dark letters on a light background? If so, she is certainly qualified as a graphic designer.”
“Who told her to stand there, by the Stop Sign, with her fingers at six o’clock and three o’clock so the drivers had to stop so they could read her sign unblocked by her hands? Who was the stylist on the shoot, who dressed her, who pinned back her hair, or the director, who told her not to smile? Who told her that at that time was the busiest time at the supermarket and the most cars would be coming and going? Who told her how long to stand there?”
I wondered all these questions. First of all, if there was a secret organization who managed all the homeless folks and paid them to stand and sign, how much did they get and how much do the sign standers get. Is there an inventory of signs? Do the homeless ones pick out the signs they like or are they “assigned?” Because, if there isn’t this kind of organization driving those that can’t or won’t drive themselves, then these folks are choosing to do this and making these decisions on their own. They are saying, “I’d rather stand on this corner, next to this stop sign, and make at least $10-$20 bucks an hour, than work at McDonald’s or the Gap or what ever.” If they are mentally handicapped, that’s one thing, if they are not blessed with the gifts of a good physical appearance, that’s another thing. But if they are healthy, fully functioning, with looks and brains, then who’s the dummy here?
After I grabbed all these shots, I went up to her and gave her $5. She did not smile and say thank you, nor did she give me a receipt so I could deduct the contribution on my taxes. She just took the money, slipped it into her pocket, looked away and continued working. Obviously a hard worker! I studied her long neck and high cheekbones and little nose. I looked at her pretty hay colored hair and marvelous collarbone. I’m sure she could find employment in a million different places. But giving her the benefit of the doubt, I’m guessing she has no home, which means no shower to wash in or no phone to receive a call that may be a job offer. No closet to hang her clothes, no tooth-brush and no bed to sleep in. Perhaps it’s a self-esteem thing and she feels she is doing the best she can.
As I’m writing this, I’m thinking, maybe I should have been more generous and given her my whole change jar. What would she have done with the five pounds of change? Would she just keep my fancy coffee jar on the ground by her shoes? Would she empty it and try to fill her pockets with my quarters?
Maybe she’d tell me that management told her she should only accepts paper money.