Ain't too proud to beg
Six stories of hardscrabble lives on the streets of Detroit
Published: October 5, 2011
Calhoun never recovered. She fled to Detroit, worked at a gas station for two years, lost the job, lost her apartment, and was soon wandering the streets of Detroit, the region's home for the homeless.
She complains she can't get her life going again because she doesn't know where to begin. She can't even get any ID because she has no old ID to present for the new one. "I can't prove who I am."
After so much time working a corner, a few trends became clear, she says. The drivers in the beater cars give more than those in the luxury vehicles. Black women give the most money. Old white men give the least. White women and Middle Eastern men fall in the middle of the giving scale.
The most she ever got from one person was $80. "I was so happy, I went shopping," she says, excitedly. "I went and got my little hair done." But it worked against her when she went back out to beg. "Then they were like, 'Oh, you ain't homeless. You got your hair done.'"
After several years on this corner, life has settled into a miserable routine she dreams of escaping despite having no clear way of doing so. "I wanna live life," she says. "I wanna live. I don't wanna be out here, but I don't have no choice. I don't have any other options. I don't even have an identity right now."
A patch of flesh on the palm of his hand bulges outward, discolored and bordered by a thick pink scar.
"A guy tried to take my cell phone and rob me, and he stabbed me," says Anthony Cerello, 55. It was June 9, daytime, and Cerello was holding his sign at his usual spot, where southbound I-75 exits onto Rosa Parks Boulevard on the city's southwest side.
A drunk approached, claimed he had a broken-down car, asked to use Cerello's cell phone and then refused to give it back. When Cerello reached to grab it, the man pulled out a knife and started swinging it. A hand raised in defense provided a quick target for the blade.
"He cut my main artery and both of my tendons were hanging out like this, squirting blood like a hose," the wiry Cerello says, showing his hand. "I put a tourniquet on it and held my arm up and waited for the EMS."
Cerello's life has been defined by such hard luck. "I'm an alcoholic, I'm not going to lie about it," he says. "I'm an alcoholic and a pill head. But you know what, man? You got to be on something here."
He went into the Army young, he claims, and got a heroin habit when he got out. To fund his addiction he started robbing the string of strip clubs that dot Michigan Avenue. He'd hide and wait for each club's manager to lock up for the night and walk out with a bag containing the night's receipts.
He botched his last heist and it earned him 17 years and nine months in prison for armed robbery, plus a charge of kidnapping. "Because I took one manager and threw him in the cooler and locked him in there," he explains. "But I made sure he wasn't going to die or nothing, I turned the cooler all off. I did it 'cause he kept threatening to kill me. He was saying, 'You're lucky I don't have my gun or I'd kill you,' so I said, 'All right, smart ass, get in the cooler. You're gonna wait for me to leave.' I didn't want to take a chance for me to leave and have him start shooting. I was more scared than he was."
Cerello's been out of prison for nine years now, most of it spent homeless. His intersection is highly coveted among panhandlers because there are two casinos nearby, bringing drivers past with pockets full of cash. "A lot of people, they'll give you fives and tens to bring them good luck, and they'll say, 'If I hit I'll come back and give you a $100 bill.'" A woman actually did that once, he says.
Everyone isn't so kind, though. He's had people throw empty bottles at him, hurl pennies at his face, spit at him as they pass or just taunt him by calling him over with the promise of money and speeding away, laughing, once he gets there. Someone even once threw a cup full of urine at him.
But over the holidays, people's generosity shows, and he gets bigger handouts, sometimes even gift cards. And after years here, he's learned who gives and who doesn't. The rule of thumb, he says, echoing the other sign-holders, is the poorer the driver, the more money they're inclined to give.
"The big cars don't give you shit," Cerello says. "It's the little old beat-up cars, people that don't have nothing, that will give you the most money. The rich guys are tighter than the poor people. You would think it would be the other way around, but it's not. That's why I ask God to bless them and their family every day for giving me money, because they're taking away from them and their family by giving me a dollar."
A puffy man known on the streets as Bird wanders up, gray-haired and red-faced, ready to take this spot once Cerello leaves. Cerello is friendly to him, but really doesn't like him.
"He's 60 years old, he's been homeless all his life," he says of Bird. "He's the type you don't want to be around. He's a petty thief, steals. It's not worth that crap. And he's a horrible alcoholic. But I don't judge."
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