Since moving back to the Nightclub Store I’ve been feeling revitalized. My schedule tends to stay constant; when I get relocated it’s usually for reasons deeper than schedule conflict. While I may appear to be a lazy (alebit clean) hippie, I have territorial issues that extend well into my working life. The boss may have figured out how to exploit that.
In other words, get off my porch, you bums!
Downtown, a piece of sidewalk near an open business is a goldmine. Ever been past the liquor store during business hours? There’s a constant pile of dreadlocked, dirt-encrusted bums a few feet from the door. Cardboard signs litter the ground. Their disinterested dogs dream of a life where they chase squirrels instead of rats, and a doggie treat has meat in it, not the leftover PBR that’s too flat for the human to tolerate. Their women have a Ferengi quality about them. “Why lie? I wanta get wasted” is their mantra, and they practice what they preach. While they hustle up their drinking money? I get to listen to it.
“Bro? Spare one a them cigarettes?”
“Excuse me sir, I just need fifty-nine more cents to buy a plane ticket back to Georgia. Help me out?”
“Can you spare a dollar for some clean underwear?”
No subject that evokes sympathy is taboo. The Ferengi women will show you the scabs on their labia if you’ll give ‘em five bucks for salve.
“Cool! Another space-bag!” (A space-bag is box wine taken out of the box. They fit the Mylar bag into a jacket or backpack and fill Arizona Ice Tea cans with bottom-of-the-barrel white zinfandel.)
My first few nights back were contentious. I let the bums continue mostly unabated the first week, coming out to the front of the store and watching the pecking order. Seeing who was a constant, who was just passing through. The next week I cultivated a following amongst the Clean & Safe officers. Their dropping by to say hi would clear the front of the store post-haste.
The third week it was time to get pro-active. When bums sat too close to the door I would approach and politely tell them, “My boss has been getting on me about not keeping the area in front of the store clear. If you move a bit further from the door, no problem. If not, I have to call Clean & Safe.” I turn and leave before they have time to argue.
I don’t mind some of the regulars. It helps that Rain knows a lot of these folks from her adventures at the shelters and Old Town Clinic. If I have a problem, she talks to them and they go away. (Thanks, babe.) Others spend money, so I give them slack. They are beginning to understand that if the store doesn’t eat, nobody eats.
Some bring amusement to the game. Beamer is one. He looks like a post-teen Bela Lugosi dressed as a Road Warrior, and likes to use Jim Beam for the liquid in his heroin shots. (“The alcohol cooks down when you heat it, and makes the high last longer.”) That might explain why I see him break-dancing on the sidewalk when there’s no music to be heard. He was ornery at first, but after I listened to some of his tall tales he’s dubbed me all right.
One old dude I always see on a bicycle got some attention the other day. He pulls up, sits on the sidewalk with a leg draped over his bike and panhandles enough for a cup of coffee. I don’t say anything, just give him a mild stinkeye and go back into the store. Weird Steven was inside, and we chatted until I noticed red and blue flickering lights outside. Hmm.
We stepped to the door, and an officer from the Portland Police Bureau (the ‘real’ cops) was talking to Old Scraggly. I announced to no one in particular, “Wow, that didn’t take long!”
Might as well use the tools given. They don’t know I didn’t call.
“Is that your bike? How long have you had it?” The officer was asking Scraggly.
“Oh, I don’t know. A while now. Let’s see-“
The cop cut him off. “Before you say any more, let me show you something. We’ve got pictures of this bike here, and pictures of a guy who looks a lot like you taking this bike from Powell’s Books about half an hour ago. Doesn’t this look a LOT like you and your hat? Now, anything you want to tell me before we get off on the wrong foot?”
Weird Steven and I chose to high-five inside the store. Both our shifts will be quiet for a few days now.
PoPo cuffed and stuffed Scraggly. He told some old woman with a walker, “See you in a couple hours, babygirl.” There oughta be a law against septuagenarians calling each other baby-anything.
Clean-cut types can be as bad or worse. Nearing the end of a particularly irritating shift, a clean-cut young man, shaved head, Kangol cap, flesh-colored guitar case, came to the counter. His charm was just a bit too ingenuine, so I chose not to take his word at face value.
“Hi there,” he started in a politician’s voice. “I’m a nice guy in a terrible situation, and I’m hoping you can help me.”
I looked him in the eye. “Probably not.” Anytime there’s a preamble like that, some bullshit is involved.
His smile glitched. “I just need to make a phone call.”
“Pay phone right there.” I pointed to the one just outside the door, where a dirt urchin was sitting down with a sign.
“But I don’t have any change.”
“Can’t I use your phone.”
“No. Seriously.” I sighed through my nostrils, in case he hadn’t figured out by now that he was getting on my nerves. “Anything else?”
“You’re a dick!” Ooh, he was mad his charming line didn’t work on me.
“So much for being a nice guy.” I smirked and nodded toward the door. “Out.”
“Call the cops. I ain’t leaving!”
“Okay.” I called Clean & Safe, gave all the info in case he didn’t leave. As I repeated the store address, he walked out.
“Fuck you!” he yelled.
“See ya later, mister nice guy!” I told Clean & Safe I’d call back if he returned.
Five minutes later I looked out by the payphone. He was sitting next to the sign-bum. I called Clean & Safe and told the dispatcher he’d returned. The ne’er-do-wells saw me on the phone, cursed none too gently and left for the last time. I let the law come this time. I had three or four officers walking the block for the better part of an hour. We all get a break.
We all gotta swim in these waters. I don’t want to keep my boot upon the neck of my downtrodden fellow man. (And Ferengi women.) The panhandlers spend lots of money with us. We just can’t have them scaring away the high-rollers. The easy touches.
Panhandlers should know this better than anyone. You don’t kill the golden goose.