Ain't too proud to beg
Six stories of hardscrabble lives on the streets of Detroit
Published: October 5, 2011
They have to look miserable, they say. Otherwise they'd never make a dime.
And they have to sum up their lives in a few words written on a small piece of cardboard.
These are the first rules of the sign-holders, the panhandlers who post themselves where freeway exit ramps spill onto the surface streets, presenting woeful expressions and wrinkled signs with black-ink pleas etched on them. The words they choose are sometimes different but the requests are always the same — please help.
There are dozens of them out there every day. Some are in the same place so many years they become familiar fixtures on a daily commute. Some have stood outside so long the weather makes them look old before they actually are. Some aren't even homeless. But each has a life story interrupted by one event that sent them plummeting to the bottom, reduced to begging for change on a street corner, exposed to the worst of the weather, and on display to a public that has little sense of the despair that comes from having no place of your own.
Although they work alone, a system of loose codes and laws has evolved among them to govern their workspaces and their interactions with each other, spelling out who gets which corner when, and for how long. Their signs, too, have assumed some uniformity, settling on a few tried-and-tested keywords. "Homeless" and "hungry" are required adjectives. "Veteran" can stir anger among some drivers, particularly those who've served in the military. "God bless" suggests humble belief in a better world. "Will work" draws sometimes bluff-calling offers of a real job.
They'll tell you about their categories for the drivers who roll down their car windows in response to their written appeals — the feeders who hand out food, the drinkers who give them beers, the regulars who show up at the same time every week with the same amount of money to give, and the johns who proposition the women, figuring someone so down on their luck will have sex in a car for a few bucks.
They've classified those who refuse to give too. The drivers who fake a phone call to avoid being engaged. The ones who stare nervously ahead, gripping the wheel. The door lockers. Those who nod and smile but keep the window rolled up. And the cruel ones who play tricks, yell insults or throw things.
The sign-holders are a minority among the city's vagrants and homeless. They're the handful with enough drive and dedication to spend hours standing in one place, making a sales pitch. They could probably succeed at a real job somewhere with such determination. But who's going to hire a depressed guy with three teeth, a felony record and a drinking problem?
So sign-holding becomes their career. And it's a demanding one. They have to be sellers of something that's not a product, isn't a service, and has little benefit for the customer other than perhaps inner satisfaction. They have to sell their misery. And though almost none of them have actual jobs, make no mistake — this is hard work. Here are the stories they tell.
The man rolled down his window and offered a quarter, but when she went to grab it he dropped it on the pavement so she'd have to pick it up.
"See, he was sarcastic," says Carmen Calhoun, 44, grabbing the coin off the asphalt. "I mean, I could hear it in his voice. But you know what? I humbled myself."
Calhoun is working the intersection at Eight Mile and I-75 service drive, on one of the rounded corners created by the looping roads that swirl through here. A traffic light strung above holds cars hostage here for an awkward minute, captive to her imploring presence. She holds a small sign, black marker on cardboard, that reads, "Any help. Homeless. God Bless." All capped off by four periods that she confusingly mistakes for exclamation points.
She's been out for 40 minutes so far today, and hasn't made more than that quarter. Though a woman came by just moments earlier with a small plastic bag full of food — crackers, an orange, a water bottle and a can of Vienna sausages. At least it's something. "We call her the Snack Lady," Calhoun notes.
The spot she works isn't hers alone. You can't claim a corner for yourself. The rule out here is, you make the day's limit and then make way for someone else. "It's customary to where if you make $10, you move," she says. "It's like law. It's the law. But some people be corner hogs. They think they own the corner."
Calhoun comes out sometime after noon and leaves by sunset, because at night she can't see if a window's been rolled down or not, and if you inadvertently approach a rolled-up window drivers think you're aggressive and it scares them. At dusk she wanders into the crumbling State Fair neighborhood just south of Eight Mile Road, and picks an abandoned house to sleep in. She protects herself with a bicycle chain strung across the front door, with little bells hanging on it. If someone comes in, they'll trip over it and her makeshift alarm will go off.
She claims she became homeless seven years ago after losing her family. "I buried three kids," she says. They lived in Flint until the night her oldest son played with matches as the family slept. The home caught fire and three of her four children burned to death inside. Calhoun woke up in time to save one of them, a daughter, who's currently staying with relatives still living in Flint. "She graduated this year," she says.
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