A man with a tin can, a street corner institution in Syracuse

Syracuse University Marshall Street

Gertis McDowell is a familiar sight on the campus of Syracuse University.

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.

He’s so well-known on the Syracuse University campus (his favorite daytime spot) that students videotape him and share his story for class assignments. Some are now on YouTube and Vimeo.

Gertis McDowell Syracuse

Gertis greets female passersby with “Hey, pretty girl” and males with “Hey Big Papi.” I have yet to see a negative reaction from anyone he greets this way.

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.

Marshall Street Syracuse

Gertis McDowell at his usual corner on Syracuse’s Marshall Street.

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.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in college, hunger, poverty and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to A man with a tin can, a street corner institution in Syracuse

  1. markbialczak says:

    Gertis is indeed a man comfortable conversing in his corner, Jim. Thank you for sharing his tale. I am going to reblog this now.


  2. markbialczak says:

    Reblogged this on markbialczak and commented:
    My Syracuse friend and fellow blogger Jim McKeever again spreads the word about somebody that deserves a minute of your time.


  3. Emilio Pasquale says:

    I came through Mark’s reblog. Glad I did. I think it’s a great idea to highlight some one like Gertis. There are people like him in every city that we tend to ignore. It would be nice to have their stories.


  4. Great post, Jim! I’m jealous of your ability to get these posts written. It’s enjoyed questioning myself on what I can do better, to be better when it comes to taking a moment to say a quick hello or a handful of minutes for conversation. However, I have contributed to Gertis’ cause. He’s an interesting fellow. Glad to see he is still around.


  5. gjroma says:


    I know him! I used to see him down by Walton Street when I worked the occasional shift over there. A pretty jovial man, but I’ve also seen him get into it with other “coin shakers” scoping out his area. That Gertis is pretty fierce, it was very surprising to see him change roles so fast… but I guess nothing will do that quite like the push for survival that he must feel at times.

    Keep up the great posts, always a pleasure to have your stories waiting in my inbox! Hope you have a great weekend! Always for Africa, Gabrielle Romano http://www.kamalatu.org


    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you, Gabrielle … I’ve seen other guys using the tin-can-shake technique a block away, so I’m guessing he doesn’t like that too much. He’s always been pleasant to me, and to everyone I’ve seen him encounter. Have a great weekend yourself, and I’ll see you sooner rather than later, I hope!


  6. Jim, I love people. This is why I have faith in us. People who share. People who speak to one another. People who see one another. :Thank you. 🙂


  7. Beautiful story, Jim. I’m glad students are receptive to him and share his story – as you have. Too many times, the homeless have no voice. But they do have a story to tell.


  8. Jeez, Jim, I thought I was the only one he called “pretty girl!”


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