For the last four months, George Elliott has been a forceful, sometimes embarrassing, reminder of the pain and desperation of hard times. Two or three times a week since November he has driven to downtown Washington from Cockeysville, Md., in a borrowed car, stood on 17th Street during lunch hour in a coat and tie, and begged.
"Please Help," reads his hand-lettered sign. "I've lost my job, car, savings, my apartment. Anything you can give me will be greatly appreciated. Employment welcomed."
Two years ago Elliott quit a job in Baltimore as a sales representative for a medical supplies firm in hope of finding something better. He has been unable to find steady work since, but has made some money refinishing furniture.
Despite rounds of interviews each week, and doggedly following up on the business cards people hand him after reading his sign, Elliott is still unemployed.
"I've never had trouble finding a job before," said the Baltimore native, who studied business for 3 1/2 years at the University of Southern California.
After exhausting his savings, Elliott was evicted from his apartment in Baltimore. Electricity had been turned off in the apartment for nonpayment of bills four months before he moved out. Currently, he is sleeping on a friend's couch in Cockeysville, a Baltimore suburb.
"I'm so behind in child support, I could go to jail," he said of the $5,000 he owes his ex-wife to care for their two sons. "I feel terrible about it."
He begs in Washington because he knows few people in the city. "It's embarrassing as hell to stand here," he said one day recently. "I have a hard time making eye contact."
The reaction of most Washingtonians is amazement, then embarrassment. Some are so jolted by his openness, they doubt his sincerity. "People ask me if it's a publicity stunt," said Elliott, who has not told his elderly parents, who live in Baltimore, about his true situation. "Others come by and tell me they're out of work, too."
His unemployment benefits expired a long time ago and he cannot bring himself to apply for welfare."There are limits to my pride and I figure others are worse off.
"One woman walked by when I was standing in front of the People's Drug and came back and gave me a roll with a block of cheese," Elliott said. "A guy with a bedroll walked up to me and asked if he could have it. He just devoured it. Today, he walked up to me again. And people want to know if this is for real."