In the mid-1990s, I became acquainted with a segment of the homeless population in my city known as the Flyers.
They’re the guys who hold cardboard signs at intersections asking for money. You have them in your city, and you’re probably sick of avoiding them.
Many of them, I’m sure, are best avoided. But don’t paint them all with the same brush just yet.
Here’s a “Jersey” story. I’m betting he’s long dead, given his affection for vodka.
Jersey was one of the Flyers that my newspaper colleague Dennis Nett and I befriended. He was from Jersey, he said, and that’s what people called him. It took some time to earn his trust, and the trust of the crew he hung around with.
Jersey liked to be creative with his cardboard signs. In addition to the usual “Homeless, Please Help, God Bless” messages, he had clever signs like “Do You Have Any Grey Poupon?” and “If I Only Had A Brain” …
It worked. Passing motorists would smile and give him money. One driver who appreciated his L. Frank Baum Scarecrow reference handed him a $5 bill and said, “Here you go, buddy, this’ll get you to Oz!”
Jersey loved to share his “flying” stories, as did a lot of the Flyers after you got to know them.
After hearing one of Jersey’s stories, I told him a story that another Flyer – Kevin — had shared with me. Kevin had told me about a hot summer day when he was “flying” at an intersection and a convertible pulled up with several young ladies in bathing suits, apparently heading to the beach.
Kevin made eye contact, of course, as the convertible stopped for the light. With particular joy, he related how one of the young ladies handed him a $10 bill — while a second young lady lifted up the top of her bathing suit to give Kevin a little thrill.
As I got to the end of that story, Jersey became furious and began waving the cane he carried with him.
“That’s my story!” Jersey yelled. “Tits and Ten! That happened to me, not him! Sonofabitch!”
I don’t remember what happened after that, but I’m guessing Jersey went looking for Kevin to set things straight. That conversation has stayed with me all these years, and I think about it often. I always marvel at the depth of what “Tits and Ten” meant to Jersey.
Here’s a guy who had absolutely nothing to his name other than what he wore and could carry with him day after day, night after night, in shelters and under bridges.
But he had that story — possibly the only thing he could take pride in at that point in his life. Someone had tried to take it from him, and it hurt him deeply. So, Jersey … many years later, let the record show — it was your story.
(My colleague Dennis Nett, a great photographer and an even better human being, took these and many other beautiful photos of the Flyers for a five-part series we worked on for the daily newspaper.)