CCD’s Journalism Department has produced the second edition of the Journal of Excellence, a digital collection of articles, photos, and essays produced, designed, and distributed by CCD students.
On any other day, the sounds of fleeting conversation, cars driving to and fro, and water roaring up from the gutters would be drowned out by the likes of Eminem or 311. Today, I have no choice but to bask in the sounds of the city. Denver, Queen City of the plains, I’ve known her for many a year, through multiple stages of life. I’ve seen her through eyes of sorrow and elation, complete achievement and utter despair, through sobriety and states that I care not to discuss. But today we get reacquainted through eyes that are foreign to me. It’s remarkable really, how much one can miss with a pair of headphones constantly blaring.
I’m watching the incessant rain putting quite the damper on my afternoon. Although, instead of watching through a coffee shop window like usual, I’ve taken shelter underneath an awning outside an apartment building on 15th and Wynkoop. Hopefully conditions get better with the coming hours, or else tonight might be a little more trying than I suspected. Sleeping with a wet blanket is one thing I’d rather do without. About thirty minutes later, the rain slightly lets up. Since I haven’t eaten yet, 16th Street seems like the most obvious place to go. As luck would have it though, I’m on 16th for no more than a minute when the wind and the rain rear their ugly head again. I take cover underneath the northeast corner of a brick building; there’s a small brick planter housing three dead plants. I take a seat, light a cigarette, and wonder how good of an idea this really was.
While keeping dry on 16th and Larimer, a most serendipitous of meetings occurred. Two seemingly homeless men - one can only assume - joined me beneath the cover. Recognizing my attire, pack, and bed roll, they asked how business was going today; I told them I haven’t eaten yet. They collectively nodded their heads in a knowing manner. The two men inquired how long I’d been at it, at which point, I made them privy to my profile paper and my attempted immersion into the homeless culture. They seemed to be thoroughly amused by this gesture and took me under their wing at once.
Smiley and Red had almost a storybook dynamic to them. Smiley, a younger fellow around my age, was tall with short brown hair. He was sporting a green Ireland shirt draped over a black polo shirt. His frayed jeans and dirty feet didn’t deceive his status as a homeless person. Smiley’s defining attribute though, was a cute little dog perched along his shoulders. His name was Spot, but the majority of the time they call him Oodog. Contrary to most homeless people I come in contact with, his eyes still had a glimmer of youth in them. He was very laid back and at ease about everything. Red was obviously the older of the two, having turned thirty-two not too long before we met. There were about seven or eight dreads, collected in a hair tie, limply standing up on top of his head. His huge graying beard and raspy voice unmistakably fit into my stereotypes of a homeless person. He wore a faded green t-shirt and khaki cargo shorts, great for carrying all the miscellaneous items. His most notable accessory was a hemp necklace with a blown glass bead and a wire wrap connected to the end of it. He was the more boisterous of the two, not wasting a second to introduce me to the ways of the homeless.
They imparted to me the unwritten law of the streets. Red told me that being positive is essential to being homeless. There’s no point in being sad and homeless; at that point you really have nothing. Compared to Smiley, he was also considerably more spiritual. He was acutely in touch with various vibrations and energies, like a spiritual approach to being aware of your surroundings. “What you put out into the Universe you will get in turn,” is the mantra Red swears by. He’s convinced that the Universe will provide exactly what’s needed.
Indeed, after fifteen minutes of spanging, otherwise known as panhandling, we were given a to-go box of delicious pizza. Knowing I hadn’t eaten all day, Smiley and Red insisted I indulge in the fruits of our labor. The inaugural meal from a stranger’s to-go box was four slices of spinach and fresh mozzarella pizza. According to my trainers, there is a right way and a wrong way to spange. Red first asked me what kind of sign I’m flying. I came prepared with four different cardboard signs, each donning a humorous message. During my interviews on Wednesday, I found out that humor sells far better than sympathy, and so far that certainly seems to be the case. I’m flying a sign that reads, “Too ugly to prostitute, too honest to steal – anything helps,” and it seems to be a pretty good hit. A Hispanic family even stopped to take a picture with me. Afterwards they tipped me a dollar, which Red informs me, is one of the unwritten rules.
Over the course of a couple hours, Smiley, Red, and I are having what I would normally call a blast. Smiley didn’t garner that nickname in vain. Next to surviving, putting a smile on people’s faces makes his day. Throughout the afternoon, Smiley has been testing and retesting the gullibility of passersby by letting them know, “You dropped your smile!” It’s astounding the fun one can have just watching the reactions to this comment; most everyone gives Smiley exactly what he’s aiming for. The two of them would also perform a “Hippie Road Block,” where they would jump in front of an unsuspecting person and exclaim, “Joke, toke, or smoke!” This prompting the individual to either tell a joke, smoke a bowl, or bum a cigarette. Most people were caught off guard and didn’t take to the invitation as well as one would hope. I’m dumbfounded at the amount of charisma Smiley and Red put forth, given their current circumstances.
It’s around six o’clock in the afternoon, but I can’t be sure. I have no means to tell time. While Smiley and Red went to run an errand, I volunteered to stay and hold down the fort. It was during this isolation that my greatest challenge thus far made itself all too apparent. As I was flying my sign, I noticed the lack of eye contact I was making. I would keep my head low or emptily gaze down the street. There’s a mild sense of shame, making me inept to seeing myself as an equal to the crowds passing by. When my companions were right here, rooting me on in a way, I had almost forgotten that I’m homeless, jobless, and doing nothing besides trying to survive. Like the rain earlier, it all came flooding back to me. It was miserable thinking that my contemporaries were flossing past me, thinking about how much of a low life I am, or the older folks not believing how a young buck like me could be wasting his life being a lazy bum. Or the most terrible part, watching all the beautiful women promenading down the mall, not having any suspicion whatsoever as to what a wonderful catch they just strolled by. For the first time in a long time, I was eager to not be by myself.
The few times I managed to make eye contact, most were quick to veer away, but there were those few that gave me a genuine and reassuring smile, sometimes even a “How’s it goin’?” There’s never been a time when I was more grateful for something so simple. Ironically, I made the most money throughout my whole venture during my hour all alone. And every small donation I was given made me quiver in the wake of my heightened gratitude. Considering that these people are unaware of my guise, they are providing me with the bare essentials to survive. It’s amazing the readiness anyone has to make sure that happens. By the end of our spanging, we had collected $17, 8 slices of pizza, half a burger, half a sandwich, some pasta, and 4 cigarettes. My comrades and I actually have a surplus for today.
Daylight slowly drifts away, signaling the imminent trek to our sleeping quarters. As we’re walking, I’m totally under the impression that our destination is a bridge of some sort. But after a mile of sauntering, we come to a stop, and I’m awfully disappointed. We set up camp alongside a building whose southeast corner is home to The British Bulldog, a dive bar on 21st and Stout. Writing this paper under yellow streetlight at one in the morning gives me a Jack Kerouac sensation. It almost feels surreal. I’m running out of cigarettes, the only companion I brought with me on this endeavor. Looking at Smiley and Red in their slumbers, I’m trying to convince myself that sleeping on the sidewalk in Five Points will not yield a negative consequence. But if I want any rest for work tomorrow, I have to “stop talking about it and be about it” as Smiley and Red would say.
My attempt to sleep was nearly in vain, bouncing between utter paranoia and a half decent daze. I didn’t think I would’ve had so much trouble falling asleep out here, but with it being Friday night, the drunks were out, and the cars were absolutely non-stop; not to mention, the light blanket I brought was barely sufficient for the early morning cold. Luckily, Smiley found me a good sized piece of cardboard to put between myself and the unforgiving concrete. Red explained that cement is infamous for drawing all the warmth from one’s body, hence the ever so popular, bum sleeping on cardboard stereotype.
Dawn has just broken over the horizon, and it’s time to get back on the grind. After packing up all the sleeping arrangements, our first stop is 7-11 for a nice hot twenty-four ounce cup of java. Once we enjoy our morning cigarette and warm our bellies with some gratifying pumpkin spice latte, we make our way to 14th and Speer to begin the morning spanging. Waiting for the first kick-down, or donation, is always the most grueling. The three of us rotated sign flying duty for about forty-five minutes when our first blessing came in the form of three sack lunches, each containing a sandwich and peanut butter crackers. It was only nine in the morning, and we already had breakfast. Eventually, I got pretty efficient at playing human Frogger while grabbing kick-downs from people’s cars on Speer. Shortly thereafter, our cigarettes and money were replenished, not to mention, some lovely people also donated a bag of dog food for Spot. It seems the Universe intends to supply all our needs this morning.
It’s finally about time I hit the road back to my house, my shower, my headphones, back to my button down shirts and clean shoes, and most importantly, back to my natural gait, back to exuding my overwhelming wealth of confidence. But currently we’re taking a mid-day rest on the lawn of the capitol, people watching as the masses make their way to The Taste of Colorado. After some reflection, the irony of panhandling right outside the annual festival is not lost on me. It’s quite fitting that in the years gone by I’ve tasted Colorado in my most lucid hours and darkest days, whilst being entirely grounded and completely helpless. I’ve tasted its succulent opportunities and acrid adversity. Indeed, now I have a new taste of Colorado, with a home and without one.