Update: For those not familiar with Greensboro, NC. the City recently enacted new crackdowns on panhandlers. The man in this story is one of the people who will be adversely affected by the City's actions. Begin story:
John isn't his real name but he's not proud of what he does so I'll keep his real name to myself.
I first met John at Greensboro's Bessemer Elementary School in the 1960s, circa 3rd grade. John was a year older than I but had failed or otherwise been held back a year. John's mother never brought cupcakes to school because unlike the other mothers in those days, John's mother worked a full time job to support John and his younger brother as John's father had died young. I never thought about it then but looking back John must have felt alone being the only kid in class without his mother present.
Like a lot of boys without fathers, John was a bit of a problem child and got into his fair share of trouble but nothing really bad. High school and Greensboro's forced busing found us both at Dudley High School where we were often victims of racial violence. Like me, like most of the kids I grew up with, John hated being there.
Now I admit that I thought John was crazy when at 17 years of age he quit school and enlisted in the US Army to go fight in Vietnam. Not that I thought the quitting school part was crazy-- my parents wouldn't allow me to quit-- but I was making plans to go to Canada should I be called to go to 'Nam. Apparently, John's mother had her hands full as she signed the papers and let the Army take John away. You know a school is bad when kids go to war to get out of it.
John's mother died unexpectedly before John's 18th birthday while John was in the jungles of Vietnam. The Army flew him home for the funeral then flew him right back into combat where his entire unit was soon wiped-out in an ambush except for John who was badly wounded and almost died before being found by another unit a few days later.
John was awarded a Purple Heart and sent home to Greensboro, North Carolina where he found himself homeless with no job skills other than the ability to pull a trigger and his little brother whisked away to an orphanage somewhere.
John found his brother a few years ago and they became close. His brother drove tractor-trailers and secretly began teaching John how to drive them too. Had his brother's employer found out it would have cost him his job but that's what brothers do. On his days off, John's younger brother was teaching John how to rebuild an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle from the ground up so that someday they could go riding together on their days off. John's brother and I sometimes rode together and we could see that look in John's eye. He had it in him. He never got around to teaching John how to ride a motorcycle before John's brother died of a liver failure.
Again, John was devastated.
John tried. Lord knows John tried and sometimes he almost got it together. He met and married a woman he found on the street, herself a shell of a human that most men would never get near and he was good to her... Most of the time. Sometime John's demons were just too much for him to handle and she suffered for it just as John suffered for it. She got a lot better and with the help of John and a lot of mental health workers was nearing a normal life. Then she died from cancer and John prays to God every day to keep him strong.
Me, I wonder how he continues to believe in a God who has punished him since he was a child.
John prefers day labor to panhandling but with the economy being what it is the day labor jobs have become fewer and farther between so John panhandles when he has to. For the last couple of years that's been almost every day. Sometimes John picks up aluminum cans and sells them to the local recycling center but having been the former general manager of said recycling center I can tell you that a day spent picking up aluminum cans probably won't buy your lunch. Sometimes when I see John he will ask me for money but usually he just needs a ride to some place where he's hoping to find a few hours of work. That is, until the last couple of years.
I know John drinks a little but in knowing John almost 50 years I have never seen him drunk. Not once.
Sometimes, when I see John he has something of value that he bought during the better times that he pawns to me for a few dollars. Sure, he could take it to a pawn shop but he dreams of buying it back someday and knows he'll never get back to the pawn shop in time. The last thing he pawned me was his 14K Gold Vietnam Veteran's ring with his name and the dates he served inscribed inside. I loaned him $20 for the ring. I saw him wear it for about 30 years before he pawned it to me. It was his most prized possession. Being that I haven't worked and haven't earned a dime in 2 years I could really use the money that gold ring would bring about now but I could never do that to John. His ring will stay locked up in my vault until he comes for it or until they put him in the ground and I place the ring on his finger to be buried with him.
I'm not on the street panhandling because I still have family who are willing to put up with me while I wait for the Social Security Administration to make a final determination on my disability that I fought not to go on for 2 years before I finally gave up and took my doctors' advice and applied for almost 2 years ago. John hasn't had anybody since the US. Army made him homeless at age 18.
I picked up a fragile young hen at the animal shelter the other day. As is too often the case, the existing flock doesn't want to accept her and when I place her with them they beat her in much like a street gang initiation. It's horrible to watch and sometimes they kill the new arrivals. I couldn't allow that to happen.
So I'm doing an experiment. I'm separating 1 hen at a time from the rest of the flock and placing them with the new hen making outcasts of the existing members of the flock. I'm not sure how it's going to work out long term but short term these same killer hens become gentle playmates to the same little hen they tried to kill before. Maybe, if we randomly took people out of their comfortable homes and put them on the streets with no money in their pockets and separated them from their own flocks...
Update 2: I'd like to add that while Greensboro, North Carolina would love to sweep its problems like John and the rest of our growing homeless population under the rug, out of sight and out of mind, Greensboro's leaders appear to be moving ahead full steam with building a $60 Million Dollar downtown performing arts center that the majority of Greensboro's citizens neither want nor will ever be able to afford to purchase tickets to performances there. A monument to Greensboro's rich elite.
Update 3: March 20, 2014 In January Mayor Nancy Barakat Vaughan and the Greensboro City Council voted to fund the $60 Million Dollar downtown Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. In February they voted for a $1.975 Million Dollar incentive package to build a downtown Wyndham luxury hotel based on a forged feasibility study. And today Mayor Vaughan, a resident of Irving Park, North Carolina's most exclusive neighborhood for the last 100 years, is proposing to ban panhandling in Greensboro altogether.
While all the while Greensboro, North Carolina remains the hub of the 2nd hungriest metropolitan statistical area in the United States, has a poverty rate of over 21% and the highest unemployment and highest taxes of any comparable city in North Carolina.