Monday, April 30, 2007


Did I tell you that I was homeless for an afternoon?

Not really, mind you.

It was during my senior year of college and I had a rented room in a house with 13 other undergrad and graduate students, but for a sociology experiment I dressed as a homeless man and went out on to Hillsborough Street in Raleigh across from the campus of North Carolina State University to spend a few hours peddling and learning how people dealt with being asked for money. (Today, I am a professional fundraiser, and I can tell you that the job is much the same in many ways, but now I smell better and get to have at least one 0.001-ounce bag of pretzels per flight.)

My sociology professor’s first name was Claire Jo. She let us use her first name in class. This seemed to distinguish sociology from, say, my calculus class, where we’d have to intone, “Your Supreme Majesty of Integrals, His Excellency Dr. Smith.” Her husband was Jerry. He was an ordained minister but worked full time for the UPS. Seems Jerry and the Baptists didn’t see eye to eye, so he was making inroads with the Presbyterian Church. Claire Jo was my second soc (pronounced “soesh”) professor, after my intro soc professor, Randy, who also encouraged familiarity, and with whom I played soccer Saturday mornings on the intramural field on the south side of campus. A group of progressive first-named professors and international graduate students squared off each week at that time. All I know is that Indonesian chemical engineering students can sprint for like twenty hours straight and not get tired, and my sorry a*# was pooped after about 90 minutes.

Claire Jo and her teaching assistant (TA), another woman, were to observe me during the experiment. I had gone to Goodwill and found the trashiest clothes I could find and then rolled around in the dirt outside my house. I put vegetable oil in my hair, dirt on my face, chewed black licorice for about an hour to discolor my teeth, and practiced a homeless “walk,” which was a kind of drunken gait not unknown to college students – I being no exception during those days – mixed with a stoic resignation that perhaps was.

One of the first things I did was find an old cigar butt in a trash bin, and positioned it between my right index and middle fingers. I asked my first passer-by for a dime. Later it was reported – for the TA was interviewing people after I approached them – that the pedestrian, a young lady, had told her, “I’m from California and I knew from the beginning he was a fake.”

Yet, one hour later, after I had perfected my gravelly voice and swagger, I swooned down Hillsborough, and in front of the grocery store I fell down across the entire width of the sidewalk.

Let’s see if I’m noticed here, I thought.

A few people congregated, trying to get me up, and I would either not respond or get halfway up and then fall back down. I knew trouble was ahead when I heard a prominent English professor say to somebody, “…no, I called. There’s an ambulance on the way.”

Oh, sh#$. I’m outta here.

I got up.

“No, wait, buddy, we got somebody coming to help you.”

No, you don’t understand, my friend. I am a big fake – the lady from California knows this – and I will ultimately fail the English class I take with you later this year if I stick around and get made.

So I strode purposefully – but not too purposefully for a homeless guy – east on Hillsborough toward the other end of the commercial district.

Standing in front of a convenience store, I solicited one of my housemates for a quarter. He didn’t even look at me and walked by. Later, I buttonholed a man stepping out of a shiny Mercedes on his way into a church. He dissed me as well.

I learned that it was very easy for people to say no when they didn’t take the first step to acknowledge my presence. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fast forward 23 years to Boston’s Washington Street, a thoroughfare limited most of the time to pedestrians and emergency vehicles one block down from the Boston Common. I interacted with this guy who said his name was "Jack", "born on Christmas Day," he claimed.

I said, "Oh, yeah? You and Jesus."

He replied, "Yeah, my first name is Gal, like Galilee."

I thought it was Jack.


Now that we have that straight.

photo: fireball45

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