It is not uncommon to see a man, or sometimes a woman, walking along the road with a backpack, shuffling at a pace meant for motion not speed, and smoking a cigarette. That same person will be signing at an exit with a “Stranded God Bless” cardboard sign made from the bottom of the box he slept on the night before, and he’ll sit there and make enough money for some beer, some smokes, and then he’ll think about food. There is some wisdom here, after a fashion, because beer removes all responsibility for reality, nicotine is a great appetite suppressant, and food a man can live without for at least a week.
No matter how you slice it cigarettes are cheaper than food. If a pack of cigarettes costs five bucks and they last twenty-four hours then you are pretty much spending five bucks a day to live. Now if you are out at an exit signing for change and make a dollar an hour then you’ve gotten all you need by early afternoon. But let’s say you manage to make ten bucks. That’s smokes and cheap beer, too. Fifteen dollars and you can catch a real buzz on cheap booze and if you hit the twenty dollar range then you can get some crackers or maybe a hamburger.
Wandering Substance Abusers are performance art on demand. It’s high drama acting for immediate pay. Today, I was over by Exit Five in Lake Park Georgia for lunch when a scruffy looking guy came up to me and told me he had run out of gas and needed a couple of bucks so he could get home. I offered him a ride and he already had an answer for that; he had a friend who was going to come get him but his friend didn’t have gas money. He ended each sentence with, “please, just a dollar, please, I’m desperate, I have to get home” but that was at the end of perfectly executed excuses to keep me from buying him gas, taking him to his car, letting him use my cell to tell his friend someone was there who would buy him gas, but all the while, this is a man who was absolutely willing to go to the mat with his story.
I looked in my wallet, pulled out a ten and held it in my hand. “I’ll give you this money but you have to answer a question truthfully, just one question.”
The man focuses on the ten. With a ten that’s a pack of smokes and six pack of cheap beer. This is Final Jeopardy for him. He can’t stop looking at the ten. He licks his lips and nods, “Okay, what?’
“You didn’t run out of gas, did you?” I ask and he starts the story all over again. In the middle of it all I pocket the ten and I can tell he’s heartbroken. He adds to the story now and there’s a medical issue he has so he has to get home soon.
I pull out a five. “Same question, five bucks.”
The stakes are lower now, but dammit, he pulled out the medical story so he’s provided more story and getting paid less to tell it. Now here’s the odd thing; why doesn’t he just tell me what I want to hear and take the money? The man has an odd little dance, like some exotic bird, where he dips and bobs in front of me as he gets more agitated. His physical reaction mimics his mental state of mind. But he has a story and he’s sticking to it. No, really, he explains, his friend is expecting him down by his car, under the overpass, just a dollar, that’s all there’s a medical issue, after all and… I put the five away and it’s like pulling a knife out of his heart.
“Okay, how about this,” I ask “either I buy you a pack of cigarettes or lunch.” I point at the fast food restaurant just down the block.
The man looks at the convenience store with longing. He glances at the fast food joint, but he quickly looks over to the store again. Money is one thing but now we’re talking drugs. Yet his experience with do-gooders has left him skeptical someone might buy him smokes for nothing at all. Hope that anything might be salvaged from this encounter is beginning to drain away from him. Like an aging lion trying to eat a tortoise, the energy expended is beginning to outweigh the reward. He’s used the stories he had on tap for this working and all he’s gotten are questions and empty promises. The idea that I might be toying with him begins to breed like cats on meth in his head.
“Look, if you ain’t going to gimme the money just say so” he says.
“I ain’t going to gimme the money” I reply. He curses under his breath and walks away.
He looks around for his next audience, but has to get out of range of me, first. This is a bad thing, the worst of all things; interpretive dance for money and the audience isn’t clapping. He shuffles off towards the interstate and yet another five minute stand.
I’ve never given money over to this sort of thing because my experience has taught me that most people looking for a handout with this sort of routine are actually trying to support a substance abuse problem. Some of them are quite good and they realize that most people will pay for peace if the actor just keeps not taking “no” for an answer. They start out with nothing and bargain for less than what they have asked for originally like a used car dealer offering to “save” you five hundred dollars. The principle is very much the same.
After lunch I have to go down to Exit Two and as I head down the ramp I can see the man standing near a car under the overpass. There’s someone with a container of gas putting gas in the car for him. Okay, so that much of his story was true, at least, but I wonder if any of the rest of it was. I wonder if it all was, in fact, and I had pre-read this story into his.