You hear Gertis McDowell before you see him. The steady rhythm of coins shaking in his tin can gives him away before you spot him in his wheelchair on the street corner.
Gertis is an institution in Syracuse, N.Y. He has occupied a few select spots for years, shaking the coins and chatting up anyone who can spare some change and a minute of their day.
Gertis loves to talk, and his Alabama drawl is downright charming. He greets male passersby with a robust “Hey, Big Papi!” and females with “Hey, pretty girl!” or “Hey, pretty lady!”
His greetings may be politically incorrect, but I always see a smile from females and males alike when he addresses them that way.
Every time I stop to talk to Gertis, he’s upbeat and positive, even when the subject turns to the cost of insulin for his diabetes or the hassles of dealing with health insurance.
Gertis, 65, lives in a senior housing complex. An aide comes in five days a week, two hours a day, to assist him with daily living needs.
Gertis says he’s in a wheelchair because he fell out of a five-story window years ago. He takes public transportation to the Syracuse University campus or downtown Syracuse, where he occasionally occupies a corner in the city’s busy Armory Square district.
In addition to coins and bills, Gertis gladly accepts coffee (with sweetener) and maybe a slice of pound cake if you happen to be heading into that well-known coffee shop at the corner.
I hadn’t seen Gertis for months, even on the rare mild winter days in Central New York. I walked past his corner a couple of times a week, and started to wonder if he was ailing.
When I finally saw him again yesterday, he said he was fine despite a recent three-day stay in the hospital for respiratory problems.
Yesterday the sun was shining, temperatures were climbing toward 60 degrees for the first time in a while, and the street had that energy so common near college campuses when the weather’s just right.
Gertis was taking it all in, even if he was a little out of practice. Instead of a tin can, he had a paper cup from another coffee shop chain. When he shook the cup, the sound of the coins didn’t have quite the same effect or decibel level, but Gertis said it was doing the job just fine.