Sunday, March 11, 2007

Babes in Bumland

I found a parking space in a downtown alley which often comes across for me. It smells like fresh piss, but I can hold my breath for a long time and the price is right. Parking garages in San Francisco operate on the rob-me-with-a-gun system, and are so vast that it's easy to lose your car, which is never where you left it when you return. I'm convinced that they move things while I'm busy elsewhere. This alley is presided over by persons of the homeless persuasion who appear out of nowhere and offer to watch my car "to make sure it isn't broken into." Of course they expect remuneration for performing the difficult service of sleeping it off in proximity to my car. It's like going through Customs.

One of them has now set up a Coleman tent on the sidewalk in the alley. Every man's home is his castle. It is no mean trick to be a homeowner with real estate in this city of obscenely inflated housing prices. I can't manage it myself.
Attracted by the sound of my engine, he lifted the canvas flap of his castle and scuttled over. I had no money, having just engaged in a cash transaction with some Girl Scouts in my neighborhood. Girl Scouts do not take credit cards for cookies. I told him that I would take care of him when I returned. After I had completed my errands, I went to an ATM to get bum money. Then I had to spend some to get change because I was damned if I would give him the whole $20. If I am going to spend $20 on liquor, Flip is going to drink it.

I went to the Godiva store and bought myself a diabetic coma. When I returned to my car, a different person of the homeless persuasion approached me for a payoff. I figured he was the other guy's lawyer. As I attempted to get money out of the tiny pocket of my jeans without tweezers, the first watchman slithered out of his tent and reminded me that he was the one guarding my car. I knew that. Contrary to what he may think, all persons of the homeless persuasion do not look alike to me. I inched a few bills out of my pocket and handed them over. Yes, it's graft. He is probably a politician who works for the state. A public servant. But his prices are not as high as the parking garage. However, all was not well in Bumland. He chastised me for not giving his friend money, too. I told him it was all I had. (I had eaten a lot of chocolate. Dark chocolate over candied orange peel. And some truffles. And something else they gave me for buying three truffles.) I like chocolate.

Flip suggested that we buy a case of vodka and take it to the tent dweller.

"Are you expecting a dinner invitation?" I asked. He assured me that he wasn't. He just thought it would be a nice thing to do. Flip would give away the clothes on his back if allowed. He has always been so generous that it makes me feel stingy by comparison. I stopped storing quarter rolls in the car after watching him scoop out handfuls at red lights for people who were too drunk to stand up. I feel bad for those less fortunate. I do. But if we run out of quarters, we cannot park our car at meters and there is almost no unmetered parking in the city. Parking tickets are ubiquitous and obscenely expensive.

I would gladly buy a meal for someone who needs one, and have done so many times. But I cannot bring myself to donate money for booze or drugs. Flip assured me that he wouldn't buy the most expensive vodka. Which was not exactly the point. I told him we were making assumptions. They probably are all drunks, but with so many vices to choose from, we don't know for sure which particular one did them in. I may not choose to give them all our money, but I don't want to hurt their feelings either. If I were a crackhead, for instance, and someone offered me liquor, I would be offended. And vice versa. I think you need to know what people really like if you are going to bring them a hostess gift.


thethinker said...

My teacher gives them fruit.

They ask for money, and she gives them fruit. Healthy, and it doesn't support their addictions.

Sometimes I wonder if any of them actually eat the fruit.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


So that's what that mushy, rotten-smelling stuff all over the street was.

Pickled Olives said...

Bum money in the alley, a small price to pay to live in SF!!

Odat said...

You're a braver woman than I. I would never leave my car for a "bum" to watch. Here in NYC there probably would be nothing it it when I got back.

Thailand Gal said...

I do think it was a bit nervy for the guy to chastise you for not sharing money with his friend as well. Street loyalty is a real driver, I suppose, but it was still nervy.

The fruit idea is a good one.



Open Grove Claudia said...

Boy, I remember this and I haven't lived in the Bay Area for almost twenty years! In fact, I never, ever carry cash because of these interactions. It annoys my friends but I learned my lesson all those years ago.

I donate to the Samaritan House and the Denver Mission to alleviate my guilt.

But that won't save your car....

Lee said...

I remember San Fran having one of the worst homeless problems I've ever encountered. I agree that a case of vodka may do more harm than good.

Once, in NYC with my kids, a guy stepped on the subway car with us and asked everyone very nicely for any change or food. We had just finished lunch and Quirky-son was carrying the leftover half of his sandwich. I looked at him and his big eyes and asked him if wanted to give it to the guy. He nodded emphatically and ran it over to him. He cried the rest of the trip. His heart was broken.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


That's what I think.


I would prefer that they not "watch" it, but it's their alley. I'm the intruder.


Fruit is a lovely idea, but it isn't always convenient to carry around a sack like Johnny Appleseed.


I hardly ever have cash on me because spending plastic is less painful. I wonder if the alley men take checks. (Which I also never carry as credit cards are quicker.)


That's a wonderful story. I think that child is destined for greatness. No, wait. He's great now. I meant that one day, everyone will know how great he is.

mist1 said...

If it would make Flip happy, I would appreciate a gift of vodka. I don't live in a tent, but sometimes, I make a fort out of sheets and my dining room table.

Anonymous said...

We have a lot of issues here in Chicago, but I cannot recall ever paying a homeless guy to park in an alley. I love the idea of that actually, in a "not right" kind of way.

I also love the rest of this story -- especially the fact of going to an ATM, getting change for a $20 by buying chocolate (a lot of chocolate) and then not having enough to grease all the palms looking to be greased.

So. . . what kind of Girl Scout cookies did you get?

heartinsanfrancisco said...


And you bathe, too.

A girl can't have too many forts. Or too much vodka.


Well, it is possible to park there w/o all the greasing. I have perfected the art of saying "I don't speak English" in many different accents.

But in a not-right way, it wouldn't seem right to ignore them on their own turf. And it IS theirs == squatters' rights.

Do-si-do's, the new little brownies (which kind of suck) and the things that look like Mallomars but w/peanut butter inside. And that was only Round 1.

Ryane said...

see, now--in DC, they would watch your car for you, too. All the way to the other side of town, where it could be stripped for parts and sold off piecemeal. haha.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


You made me laugh. In fact, I am always surprised when I return to find my car still there, windows and trunk intact, etc. (I'm from New York.)

Christina_the_wench said...

In Detroit, our homeless people just shoot you and take your money AND chocolate.

Stay far, far away, heart.

jali said...

I have homeless "buddies" that I see when I take the bus and train. I try to donate a little something to the cause, but if I don't have cash, the guys are still pretty nice to me.

I've had homeless watch my car on Empire Blvd in Bklyn - not too expensive and my car was safe.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Oh, no, not the CHOCOLATE.


I give them credit for seeing a need and creating their own jobs. I'm sure there must be a corporate term for that.

MsLittlePea said...

My Grandma used to give them sandwiches.

My friend's car got broken into after she paid a guy for "car watching" services. He said it happened while he was on his break.

If I were a crackhead, I would be offended if someone gave me vodka too.

The Law Fairy said...

Oh man, heart. Candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate is one of my favorite things in the world. Thanks to you, I might have to stop at Godiva before I head home tonight. And I really had hoped to kind of get back on the diet wagon...

I've given a fair deal of money to the homeless every so often. Yeah, a lot of them are probably going to just spend it on alcohol, and maybe they're even lying about their sob story. But I guess my feeling is that, as far as God is concerned, my responsibility is only to show compassion. Random Homeless Dude #7 is responsible for what he does with that compassion. I only have to worry about my actions -- he can answer to God/the powers that be/Shirley MacLaine himself. Which in a bizarre way is completely selfish. Ah, the paradox of do-gooditude.

Jocelyn said...

I just really like you and your sensibility and your important love of chocolate.

I hadn't realized how much I was missing the word "graft" until I read it here. And I would love to know what dinner you'd be served if you ever do score that dinner invitation...

My heart runneth over... said...

It's difficult passing somone by like that. My heart usually hurts when I see someone like that. I like to buy them food when I can. Worse is when you see young kids living that way. I'm back. Sorry I was away for so long. Glad to find you well. All the best, M.

CSL said...

I nealry got side-tracked by the dark chocolate over candied orange peel and truffles bit. Godiva - a gift from the gods. I remmebr a homeless and obviously stoned man follwing us in San Francisco and shouting to my kids, "Your Daddy's a faggot!" My younger son (who was 8) thought he'd said "fathead," and we didn't correct him.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Sweet Pea,

On his BREAK? Oh, give me a break. I'd say he was a bum of small conscience.

Law Fairy,

Sorry I've corrupted you. They may not have any left, you know. I was pretty thorough.

I do believe that our karma depends upon our actions, not effects of them over which we have no control. Of course, Shirley might disagree. You should probably ask her and not take the word of a person in a dark chocolate frenzy.


I really, really have no taste for dumpster food, so don't hold your breath on this.

I hate to think of the way these people live, but I remind myself that it is usually their choice.

I really like you, too. Would you like a chocolate or ten?


I'm so glad you've come back. I missed you.

Homeless folks with children is a whole other topic. It's just so unspeakably wrong.


Some of them, like anyone, can get hostile. Most are self-medicated into passivity, though. I don't feel threatened, except olfactorily.

velvet girl said...

Ooh, chocolate. And vodka. ;)

After being finacially challenged while living in Philly after college and being pan-handled by bums who made more in a day than I did (and tax free), I got a bit hardened to the whole begging thing.

One particulary starving day, I passed a beggar (his schick was calling out "quarter! nickel! dime! dollar!" in whatever order amused him) who berated me for passing him by on my way to work every day and not giving him anything... I growled for him to "get a job!" (remember that I was very hungry at the time) and he replied, "Baby, this is my job!" Grrrrr.

Since that day, I'll only give money to people who are genuinly trying to work for their money, be it an attempt at entertaining (no matter how bad it is... at least they're making an effort to earn it) or offering some sort of service, like your "parking attendant".


heartinsanfrancisco said...


"Parking attendant" is the perfect job description. So much classier than "Panhandler." It's good to see the American work ethic at work.

I used to feel guilty when I saw people begging in the streets, and still have to fight that feeling as I remind myself that I work for my money. If they are able-bodied, they can do the same. I do understand mental disability, but if they're strident and act entitled, I'm less likely to be generous.

I also consider street musicians workers, and donate what I can to them.


Great story. You mention that you don't like to buy booze for a homeless person but you will gladly buy a meal. Does that include liquid lunches? ;)

heartinsanfrancisco said...


You don't mean Slim Fast, do you?

I didn't think so. :)

zorak163 said...

I usually give the homeless bagels and bottles of water. If one of them ever actually said that they needed money for a drink I might then be tempted to give it to them because of the honesty. Otherwise it's non-cash donations only from me.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Once in a while, I see somebody with a sign that says, "Why lie? Need a beer."

And that is irresistible.

The all-night pharmacy in my neighborhood has a large population of sidewalk dwellers. My favorite is the one whose sign asks for "Just 23 cents." Who is going to demand change of a quarter? I think he deserves something, too, for his ingenuity in a competitive market.