Steve Klett sent this over a few days back and I hadn't had a chance to read through it yet. The letter is from Bo Keeley who is the last of the wanderers, panhandlers and modern day hobo's. I've spent some time at his outpost/home out in the Mojave and he is very much a person who still creates original ideas and chooses to live his very own way. Bo travels the world by boxcar, boat or plane if possible. Below is his take on begging. The picture is his home where we camped a few months back.
Begging Lessons from a Beggar
Any beggary tips I proffer are from observations on a hundred skid rows across America and in a hundred countries, with one exception.
Hobos call it ‘throwing your feet’ with so much walking and standing. It stares you in the face that the more panhandlers, the worse the times, and the higher the takes the bigger the boom.
Quick on the heels of a begging market comes the calamity of a region being bummed out. One year, I hopped out a boxcar along the Milk and Honey Route because of the easy alms in Salt Lake City, the Mecca. Tightened mouths under drawn hats greeted on every corner in tramp heaven until I asked, ‘Why?’
‘The city’s bummed out!’ one, and then the next cried stretching palms.
‘But why? I wondered.
‘The Bishops givin’ eats.’ I followed a string of pointed fingers to The Bishop’s front porch and a queue of thirty willing workers to sweep, wash dishes or run errands for one hour for a big sack of groceries. The news had spread like fleas up and down the rails to bring a great flux, until supply-demand had forced the immigrants to throw their feet like common beggars.
Salt Lake was bummed out. The missions jammed with not a tree remaining to sleep under, and it took a month to recover. However, I was set like Aesop’s grasshopper with twenties in my boots.
Panhandling is the world’s second oldest profession, whatever the times, so reach out to a beggar with austerity. Fully 80% of the men leaning on stop signs at intersections with upraised hands are on a government dole. The single women there have a man hiding behind a bush or building to periodically pop out to bank the cash before she’s looted by another panhandler. They are nearly all welfare moonlighters.
A Las Vegas Viet Nam veteran asserted- at least he wore a veteran’s baseball cap- ‘I clear $50 daily in the casino parking lots, and on busy days $100.‘ He migrated casino to casino judging people to tap by their gesticulations after leaving one-armed bandits. He sauntered off chewing a hash brownie. I estimate that 50% of the millions panhandled in the US alone go for drugs and steaks rather than the ‘Please give for food’, ‘Baby needs milk’, and so on that is covered by Food Stamps.
Bear times and holidays throw open hearts to win jackpots everywhere. Easter and Christmas bring the best pickin’s and I can’t say the number of times I’ve hidden behind a park bench or dumpster to keep a holiday do-gooder from forcing a turkey dinner on me.
Internationally, I recently tailed in a busy Saigon market a blind panhandler with a white cane strapped to his back and an outstretched tin cup in one hand, bullhorn in the other, bellowing pleas. I know he was blind because he walked into a truck mirror, yet when I followed him beyond to a coffee shop he pulled a thick wad for coffee and donuts as others clustered around the table. Legitimate beggars have bankrolls to share with ‘less fortunate’ friends.
The beggar stakes his busy territory and guards it jealously. If a region is bummed the fix is to move into trafficked lanes. In many countries such as El Salvador they board buses and hum a tune, pass out ‘I am deaf’ fliers or sing a psalm before staggering the aisle for payment. It is simply a job to rise to each morning. One Guatemalan beggar was a smiling legless, armless basket case who boarded my bus on the shoulder of his amigo and ambled the aisles at great profit. At the next stop he was chucked to another man who boarded a selected full bus, and little doubt each porter took his fee.
In India a crippled or scarred beggar is the golden goose, with a protective owner because beggary runs the low life economy and in a hungry recession he or she becomes the mark. Here in Lake Toba, Sumatra the coming rains have decreased tourism and turned Batak villagers to cultivate the fields where drunks live hand-to-mouth knocking on fence posts to pull weeds for small change. There is no tinkle in the cup because a dine is a paper bill.
In Egypt in a miserable sandstorm a man dashed from an alley, pleaded for alms, and when I shook my head emphatically no he jumped on my striding thigh and humped it like the affectionate dogs up and down the kennel arteries of veterinary school. It is no shame that when people get hungry they will resort to anything to feed themselves and families.
Virtuoso panhandling is a joy. How does it differ from the chamber music you pay a ticket to hear? My Sand Valley neighbor Sweet Pie altered New England statutes for burlesque music and has a standing invitation from Jay Leno to appear clad in the scantiest frill jockstrap to play the piano with a left hand signature Liberace said was the best he’d ever seen. His CD melodies confirm, and a scrapbook of Playboy, Penthouse and other risqué rags arm-in-arm with Dolly Parton and other musicians. He rejected Carnegie Hall until the contract allows after a performance to ‘pull the purse’ strolling the audience with a saddlebag hanging from his scrotum to hold up to 30lbs. of tips like the good old days.
Then there are the egghead beggars. The best I recall was a San Francisco adept on Pier 39 shouting mathematical solutions to columns of numbers and long divisions from passers-by to win change for each correct answer. But who could check him?
Are you surprised that a pro makes more per hour than you or I?
The single exception to never having less than a hundred dollars worth of twenties in each boot was in the mid-1990’s in Minneapolis where the boots were stolen. It was the projects section and so simple to borrow a quarter for the phone. On learning penniless at midnight that support would not arrive for three days, I walked into the police station and asked for a cell to overnight. Instead, the manager ran me in a squad car to the psych ward for a three-day hold pending the mental state. I was released on being able to memorize the serial numbers of a few bills in the head shrinks wallet as we played liar’s poker.
I could make the beggar venture anywhere because of an early mentor. Beggary, after all, is business or sport where the path is paved by an early teacher.
In Los Angeles in the late 1980’s the classic Midnight Mission catered to the down-and-out stew bums, car tramps and hobos alike. You walk in the peeling paint arch, sign an alias, put your gear in a locker, and take a towel, bar of soap and hot shower. Then you read donated dog-eared Women’s Days for an hour until the supper bell beckons ‘feed the spirit before the stomach’ and you stuff into church pews among the lot of demon tattooed cursing jailbirds, and good tramps too, to listen to an ‘ear pounding’ from the ‘sky pilot’, which is to say a sermon. The meal follows, and a winding stair into the building bowels to drop your pants for the Wood Lamp lice check whom are not the only creatures glowing in the dark. Then back up the stairs to the bunkhouse to sleep with your wallet between your legs. I heard gunshots outside all night in a crescendo of snores and flatulence.
The next morning I exited the Mission and was instantly accosted by a man with a tin leg that he banged with a long 45 revolver alternately pointed at my forehead, and wouldn’t stop bragging about his nitroglycerin bank heists in the old days… until a tall shadow overtook him. I looked up and a large be-whiskered old man blocked the sun.
‘Put the guy away you fool!’ The tin legged man simpered off with a resounding ping, and I turned to face my benefactor.
Now I understand it was a likely set-up for my donation; however all I could offer was, ‘Thank you. How can I possibly repay…’
He held high a huge black palm, brought it down square in front of my nose and smiled with seven teeth, ‘A tip will do.’
Instead, I bought a begging lesson from the beggar.
That my mentor had persuaded the American metropolises became obvious as he removed his hat, stringy hair drifted onto his chest, and he pushed it aside to assault each five-minute passer-by with, ‘I’ll bet you’re from so-and-so’. When he was right he got a bill; when he was close he got their attention; and when he missed the people walked on.
He instructed to always have a tale to stop a Santa Claus in his tracks, and punch it with a reason for a bit of change- $.83 to be exact that would fetch a dollar. I had a bank of stories and stood at his elbow competing for alms, beseeching while listening, and imitating each trick with my next mark. The key lesson like any sales pitch from WallMart to Macy’s is know your customer, break the ice, and appeal to his logic, emotion or intellect,… to get into his wallet.
He won hands down as I could not volunteer tears to my eyes to close the big deals. My few dollars went into his hat that I saw as a free begging lesson.