A funny thing happened to me the other day. I stopped by Phantom of the Attic, my local comic book store, on my way to campus (as I do every Wednesday). After getting my comics, I went across the street and got Subway for lunch and then I walked back to my car so i could go to work. On the way there, an unkempt man leaning against the wall stuck his hand out towards me and weakly uttered the phrase “can you spare some change?” I politely offered a “no, sorry don’t have any.” and kept on my way. The response is automatic. I didn’t check to see if I had change. I didn’t even break stride in my walk. I’m just completely conditioned to do that from years of being on the planet Earth and having people beg for change. That’s not the weird part. It’s not weird that he asked me for change. It’s not weird that I said no.
The weird part occurred to me later. I REALLY DIDN’T have any change.
I don’t really carry change. I use my debit card for pretty much everything. The comics and food that I had just bought were both paid for with plastic. I even paid the parking meter with plastic. As I write this, I’m trying to remember the last time I used physical money to purchase anything at all, and I really can’t remember. I certainly haven’t done it yet in 2015, and it’s possibly been months before that. Most of my Christmas shopping I did online last year, and what I did in stores I used credit or debit cards for too.
There is exactly $52 cash in my wallet: A single fifty-dollar bill, that I saved from a birthday card (I think) from my in-laws back in like August. I keep that on me because in the event that the global computer network fails and plunges us into a Mad Max style apocalypse, I feel like that’s good enough to trade with a hoarder in the first day (before people realize paper money is useless) for just enough supplies for me get me set up to where I can survive indefinitely because after 48 hours or so, a man’s wealth will be judged purely by the strength of his arm and the speed of his blade. There’s also a two-dollar bill that I carry around just because every once in a while you meet someone who doesn’t believe that there are two-dollar bills.
I certainly wasn’t going to give the beggar either of those things. So really, I actually didn’t have anything to give him if I wanted to.
But that made me realize. It’s actually been quite a while since anyone asked me for any change. Oakland, the area of Pittsburgh where the comic book store is, used to be packed with bums. They were very territorial. They each had their own little area that they were set up in and for the most part they never invaded each other space. (I’ve actually seen two bums fight over a disputed corner before. It wasn’t pretty). A lot of them just kind of sat there maybe with a sign, maybe just politely asking people who walked by for change, but many of them had their own gimmick. There was the guy who sat there with a duct taped boombox singing at the top of his lungs (we used to call him Mr. Wendall, after a song by Arrested Development). Then there was my all time favorite, this guy who “helped people parallel park.” Any by helping, I mean he would stand behind your car and gesticulate wildly as you were backing up in a manner that if it had anything to do with the reality of where your car was, that certainly wasn’t obvious. But it was sure entertaining. The picture that accompanies this post, I took back in 2007. This was the homeless gentleman whose territory was the closest to the comic store. I don’t remember for sure, but I think his name was Cory (Wayne or Geoff might be able to correct me here). He was a complete fixture there for years.
It didn’t occur to me til I was driving away. But the unkempt man who asked me for change was in his spot! And that means Cory wasn’t in his spot. And now that I think about it, he hasn’t been for years.
Not only has he not been there, but I actually don’t see that many beggars in Oakland at all anymore. It hadn’t really occurred to me, but they’ve pretty much packed up shop and disappeared. There could be any number of reasons. Mr. Wendall could easily just be dead. He was pretty old. The independent parking assistant, I’m just going to assume was run over one day. Maybe Cory got a job eventually and has risen to become CEO of Yoyodyne.
But really, I think maybe it’s just not economical to beg anymore. What do you do when literally no one has any change? Get square readers for your iPhones? Is there a way for bums to hang out on social messaging sites and beg for spare bitcoin? I think we all used to worry that technology would take our jobs (before we started worrying that foreigners would) and we’d end up homeless. But it looks like what really happened is that technology took the homeless’s jobs. But where did they go?
PS: I just noticed that I wrote this entire thing without swearing even one fucking time! I’m growing as a person.