"Down & Out" - Neil Henry - Washington Post
Mozart-Playing New Yorker Learns a Secret and Laughs
Allie, a young New Yorker I met at the Central Union Mission here, was the only man to discover my true identity in this two-month Baltimore-Washington odyssey. As time passed in the journey, the original fear I felt about being uncovered was supplanted by a sense of same, the ignominy of sharing bread and swapping stories with homeless derelicts while knowing I had alternatives that these men could only wish for - a warm place to sleep at night, steady work, food to eat.
Welcome to the world of panhandling, an art, science, hustle and con - and the oldest and most respected pastime of Washington's down and out. This was a city where a bum wasn't a true bum unless he mooched, begged and bummed the public for cash.
To the bums of Washington, getting by meant flipping fingers through the coin return slots for spare change, scavenging sidewalks outside fast food joints for packets of sugar, and knowing what times the soup kitchens opened. It meant tricks such as clipping the corners of a five-dollar bill, pasting the "5" digits over the "1" digits on a one-dollar bill and trusting cashiers to be none the wiser.
When the sun went down and the rats came out - furry, long-tailed, hunchbacked rats. They scampered out of their nests in the bowels of the Daughters of the American Revolution building, tiptoeing along hedges and bushes, ducking in and out of drainage gutters, sniffing for food.
After sojourns in Baltimore and the Maryland suburbs, I finally arrived in the District of Columbia - my last stop on this assignment as a homeless derelict - and soon discovered a number of contrasts between the two cities.
Carl strayed into Bethesda the same February evening I wandered into town as a homeless derelict. He was 18, a mentally troubled patient from Springfield State Hospital. He was a lost soul whose path eventually and inevitably met mine at the Bethesda Community Crisis Center, an all-purpose receptacle for Montgomery County's wounded and dispossessed.
Suburbia was a no-man's-land for the down and out. In Baltimore, my legs were invaluable because they got me around to the blood banks, soup kitchens, libraries and labor pools where I could eat or kill a day and still get back in time to spend a night at the mission. There were, in other words, basic necessities for survival a derelict could count on in the city.
As far as a bum was concerned, hotels such as the Edison were funhouses compared to the mission, and whenever my peers came across a little cash they immediately checked into the joint for a way or two of real living. Here, they could drink in the hallways, flirt with women, go in and out at night to savor The Block, and sleep much later than they could at the Helping-Up missions, where everyone was awakened and booted out the door at 5:30 every morning.
In a mission riddled with decay and grime, Johnny was a man apart. Here, in the middle of it all, was a meticulous gentleman who wore expensive sunglasses, tucked away dry-cleaned trousers in a tidy duffel bag and ate supper with a paper napkin opened neatly on his lap.
"All right, you lousy, no-good, no-count, know nothin' sons of bitches," Cockeye barked, stepping over Sam's rusty bucket, shitting off a television game show with a quick flick of his thumb and facing the crowd of unemployed workers who glanced up from their poker hands in the Paca Street union hall and listened for the rest of what their grizzled labor leader had to say this rainy morning.
Street People Share Secrets of Survival
We staggered out of the Helping-Up Mission in Baltimore every morning at 5:30, a down processional of bums trooping down the streets in twos and threes, alone in the city, save for a few prostitutes looking for one more trick to cap a long night.
Old Louie was a little guy with a gaunt, pink face and a bushy mass of white hair that stood straight up on his head. He was a bum and, like other Baltimore bums, he insisted he was leading a secret life. Whenever pressed or drunk, Old Louie declared that he was not truly down and out but rather a descendant of Manchu royalty traipsing incognito from flophouse to flophouse recruiting an army to overthrow Mao.