"Ma'am, you just gotta help me," the natty bum whimpered to a Dupont Circle stroller, letting his tears roll down on cue, "I'm new in town (sniff). I have a masters in engineering (sniff;. But I just can't land a job (sniff, sniff). Could you spare some cash so I could eat?"
"Pleeeeese, mister, pleeeeese," the grubby bum cried to the shopper he buttonholed on F Street NW. "I'm on work release from Lorton, see, and I gotta get bus fare back or they'll hang another five years on me."
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.
Washington was panhandlers' heaven compared with Baltimore, a town were most derelicts professed too much dignity to plead for money on street corners, prefering instead to mooch cigarettes and spare change from other derelicts in private, behind mission doors.
Whenever a Baltimore tramp came across a panhandler in the streets, he would usually stalk away in disgust. It just wasn't an endeavor that could be pursued with any pride or honor, at least in a town that pulsated with physical toil and hardearned sweat.
But in Washington -- where there is no guilt or shame in soliciting and taking public handouts because that is one reason this city exists -- panhandlers had a place. They were trantients -- of no fixed address, their identity cards said -- but so was practically everyone else who gravitated to town from all directions in cars, trains and jets and were different from true panhandlers only in kind. Their kind was simply less blatant and better-heeled.
That, at least, was the way some derelicts and professional panhandlers in Washington saw it.
"Nobody lives there. Nobody knows where nothin is," lamented Rocky, a bum who made his way to Baltimore after a short stay in Washington. "I wanted directions to the Veterans Administration to pick up my check and none of those guys with the briefcases knew where it was."
"Ya either sell your mind or ya sell your body," said the Atlanta Roller, the kingpin of Washington panhandlers. "I sell my mind like most everybody else."
To succeed at panhandling one had to first forget about pride and honor, for in Washington those qualities didn't seem to count. Opportunism and compromise were the key. Nothing mattered more in this city than the end result, or, as the Roller put it, the notion of "What's in it for me?" Panhandlers understood this about Washington as well as everyone else.
Washington panhandlers fell into two basic categories: floaters and hawks. A floating panhandler was one who simply walked through town, stopping pedestrians along his route. A hawk was one who worked one basic site, such as a corner or storefront. There were advantages to each of these methods.
Andy was the best of the hawks. He was a white-haired man in his 60s who always wore a hooded parka in the winter and panhandled for the better part of the last decade next to a fire hydrant at Connecticut and Q Streets NW.
When it snowed, the oversized parka covered Andy so completely that the only visible portions of his body were the white curls of his beard and his outstretched hand. Andy plied his trade for so long here that he became a part of the landscape, which was the greatest advantage a hawk could enjoy. It was his turf and his element. He would crouch beside his fire hydrant and say, "Good morning, Sandy," or "Looks like rain, eh Sam?" and these passersby would return his greetings and drop a few coins into his hand.
He was gentle, and as unobtrusive as the nearby water plug. As the neighborhood changed hands from the flower children to the speculators to the young professionals, Andy remained an island of tranquility. Merchants grew fond of him and invited him into Kramerbooks and other delis and taverns for a beer or two. He made it to the point where locals knew and liked him so much that they dropped money into his hands without Andy having to say a word.
But, as a hawk, Andy was vulnerable to interlopers. After years of work, establishing a place for himself on that corner, Andy was forced to pull up stakes several months ago after a few whiners squatted on his turf. A whiner was basically an amateur, a public nuisance who screamed at pedestrians and heckled them if they didn't fork over any money. I don't know where Andy went, but the corner of Connecticut and Q NW has been vastly different since he left.
Most panhandlers weren't as dedicated as Andy. They were floaters. Panhandling, to most floaters, was a part-time endeavor. One moment a floater would stop a "hit" -- the person one asks money from -- and the next moment he would halt before a park bench and take a snooze.
The advantage of floating was that they could do two things at once: walk, for example, across town from Foggy Bottom to the SOME House soup kitchen at O Street NW and panhandle along the way. And moving around allowed them to use wider array of raps, which was what the derelicts called their greetings or tales.
The raps were exotic, imaginative, thoughtful, tearful, jovial -- whatever it took. The object, of course, was to communicate long enough so that the hit had no alternative but to reach into his pocket, out of mercy or sympathy or just eagerness to be on his way.
There was one young man who operated out of Foggy Bottom with an old geezer whom he called his father -- an elderly man with thin white hair. Their rap bordered on the spectacular. This duo toured the streets freezing pedestrians in their tracks with a heart-wrenching saga about how they had ended up penniless in Washington after their home was destroyed by a flood in rural West Virginia. They had come here to collect a social security check for the father, the tale went. While the young man spoke in a soft voice, his "father" wept and moaned about the black lung disease.
It was very effective, and lucrative.
One of the shrewdest of the floaters was Skag, an alcoholic who used his earnings for booze. Skag wore a bright orange stocking cap and had a million and one raps, depending on his disposition.
At various times I heard Skag use these raps: "Mister, I'm a diabetic see, I gotta a card from the hospital. I gotta get my shot, mister, can you . . . . Oh, God, the attack's coming!"
"My mother's dying. . . ."
"I was knocked out and robbed. . . ."
"I usta play the piano til I went to Viet Nam and lost the hearin' out this ear here . . ."
That last rap was used on the corner of 14th and K Streets NW to a man in a flannel suit who cut him off in mid-sentence with an Eastern European-accented scoff. "Geet a yob," the man barked, 'Go ta verk."
To which Skag rapidly replied, "I am working. Kiss mine."
When his raps failed him, Skag went to Judiciary Square, across from D.C. Superior Court, stood next to a heating grate -- usually occupied by a couple of old men -- and told the passing lawyers, clerks and judges that his "brothers" were starving to death and needed a bit of change to eat. This rap often worked.
All of this was a penny-ante charade, though, compared to the unbelievable hustle of the Atlanta Roller had going.
I was never very good at panhandling because my method never seemed to evoke much sympathy. I earned less than $1 total after several days of part-time panhandling. That was peanuts compared to the $10 or $15 a day men like Andy and Skag collected.
One evening I was resting on a Dupont Circle park bench with my mission friend, Allie, after a long walk from "The Bank" -- St. Vincent de Paul. In the circle, Allie bummed a cigarette off a man who spoke in a deep southern drawl and called himself the Atlanta Roller. He offered us a snort of Wild Irish Rose and said there would be more where that came from if we helped him out.
Our job was to run to the nearby liquor store for more booze, while he worked. That was the beginning of a crash course in panhandling that kept Allie and me captivated throughout the next two hours.
The Atlanta Roller, a tall, blond-bearded man in his 40s, had to be the nattiest bum in Washington. He wore a checked tie, slightly unknotted, a white shirt, sufficiently rumpled, and a beige overcoat, appropriately wrinkled, over his three-piece suit. The Roller was pity personified, from the bottom of his scuffed wingtips to his blood red eyes, which naturally drooped downward at the corners as if he were presiding over a wake.
Even the man's walk was a study in sorrow -- a leaning, hands-stuffed-in-the pockets, head-bowed, slow-motion shuffle.
But the amazing thing was that this entire countenance was manufactured, from top to bottom, for the Roller was an extraordinary actor. The problem was he knew it. In his more geniune moments the Roller was also a very conceited, cocky and wholly obnoxious character.
"Ya gotta know yourself and ya gotta know the hit, ya dumb son of a bitch," the Roller told Allie, who stared wide-eyed at this king. "Get a tie, get a suit, be somebody."
Then we watched him work. The Roller spotted a man crossing the circle, wearing a fedora and carrying a briefcase. He approached this man slowly and indirectly -- not from behind or the front -- but from the periphery. It was the Roller's way, he bragged later, of easing himself into the man's confidence without making him feel threatened.
The Roller, hands still shoved into his pockets and head forlornly lowered, said something to the man, who slowed his businesslike gait and came to a complete stop three or four unsure steps later. He glanced at the Roller, his eyes catching the tie (fairly similar to his own) the suit (he might have had one that same color at home) the conservative wingtips and the bland overcoat. This guy wasn't a thug, surely, nor did he appear to be cruising. He might have been a colleague, as a matter of fact.
The Roller and the man talked for about five minutes, with the man furrowing his eyebrows in empathy and asking an occasional question. The Roller rubbed his face with his hand, looked at the man with very sad, and humble eyes, and carefully spoke with his head turned slightly askew so that the smell of Wild Irish Rose couldn't reach the man's face.
Then it happened, as it happened a dozen times that night. The man reached into his wallet and pulled out several bills.
"You dumb bastards don't know what rollin' is," the Roller boasted, after bouncing back to the park bench. "Lesson one, you stupid morons: Don't go for pennies. Don't say, 'Can ya spare some change?' If you're a rolla', you ask for cash."
Allie and I went out and purchased another fifth of wine, which the Roller half-emptied with a few gulps after we returned. The Roller said he was recently released from prison in Georgia, 'where he had spent seven years for knifing a man to death.
When he was discharged from jail the Roller decided to come to Washington because, as he put it, "If them dumb rednecks [Carter et al] can make it up here, I know I can."
He also boasted about having an intelligence quotient of 160 -- a declaration not easily debatable. For if an IQ is a measure of one's potential for success, this Roller had to be one smart man. In just under two hours there in Dupont Circle, Allie and I saw the man collect $32 from total strangers.
The Roller said Dupont Circle was the best place in town to panhandle because here he could make the most out of his versatile acting ability. He had different stances, approaches and raps for each passing hit. Once. he noticed a black woman arguing loudly with what appeared to be her boyfriend as the couple passed through the circle.
The boyfriend smiled and tried to hug the women, but she sternly resisted him. The Roller suddenly sauntered over to the couple, told them he was shootin' bad, you know, and was staying in a mission. Before he could get to the punch line, though, the woman told him to buzz off and proceeded to dig into her boyfriend anew.
The Roller, taken aback, looked at this woman then 'whispered sympathetically to the boyfriend, "Lord be with you, brother," and the boyfriend, smiling, handed the Roller 50 cents.
The most we saw the Roller collect from one hit that night was a $10 bill. It came from a young woman who appeared to be a college student, a "goddamn hippie," the Roller said.
"The second lesson," the Roller told us earlier. "Don't hit on bitches. They act like you're trying to rape em."
But he broke that lesson with this young college student, who was withdrawing money from a nearby Riggs Bank machine. She had long, braided hair, wire-rim glasses and was carrying two books under her arm when the Roller approached, careful to catch up with her after she had finished with the machine.
The Roller was much taller than the woman, who cradled the books and had too look almost straight up to his sad face. They talked a long talk, and after ten minutes or so she gave him the bill.
"I just put on the father figure bit," he bragged later. "Told her I was a family man and lost my job and my wife left me and took the kids with her. "You stupid m..........., all you gotta do is get people to talk to you without scaring them off."
We bought six fifths of Wild Irish Rose that night that eventually succeeded in incapacitating the Roller. He bent over the park bench, heaved most of the alcohol, and passed out.
Allie and I left, disgusted with the way the night turned out, but still awed by that professional.
Allie was a 21-year-old New Yorker, a thick-shouldered man with a handsome face and dark curly hair, who I had met at the Central Union Mission. He was a panhandler, a vagabond, a Bohemian, a musician, a waif and a pauper. But mainly, Allie was a charmer.
He liked churches. So we went to Ahs Wednesday services with opulent Georgetown worshipers, drank wine out of silver goblets and hooked priests for cash. He also liked music. So we went to a free Navy Band concert one evening, after which he played a spontaneous piano reprise of Mozart and Scott Joplin that had the crowd whistling and humming along.
He was the only person I ever met who was able to coax grins from the grim faces of subway rush-hour crowds. He was charismatic, a disarming gypsy who could have taken countless male and female lovers from among the Washington strangers he seduced with his smile.
A George Washington University professor hugged and kissed him on the street. A lonely Arlington secretary whom he befriended at a Mall skating rink cried when he parted.
Allie was an innocent and a sage, and seemed incredibly incorruptible. And, out of the scores of derelicts I met during this odyssey, he was the only one to discover my true identity.