|Blurred because he asked that I not publish his picture in a newspaper, and I assume that applies for a public blog.|
Time: 90 minutes
This is Frank. I started this project because I'd had a pretty bad last year. I often forget that I'm luckier than 99% of the people on the planet, including Frank. I met him today on the median at the intersection of Alewife Brook Parkway and Route 2 where he was holding a cardboard sign that said, "Unemployed, two kids, any little bit helps." I paid him $100 to go to lunch with me and tell me how he got there.
First of all, this was the most challenging day so far. It was out of my comfort zone. I was going up to a stranger, and effectively saying, "Well your life is clearly worse than mine. Tell me about that."
I wasn't even sure how to make the encounter happen. I first saw him walking between cars stopped at a light. I thought about rolling down my window and saying, "Hey, hop in! I'll give you a hundred dollars!" But I couldn't figure out a wording that was quick enough so I wouldn't be holding up traffic and yet explain that I wasn't trying to pay him for sex.
I end up parking at Alewife and walking over. And even that was hard. I couldn't figure out how he got where he was standing. There weren't sidewalks or crosswalks leading to where he was. Eventually I got to a point where I could wave and get his attention. He came over and explained my offer. He asked, "Really? Are you serious?"
I explained I was, and he quickly agreed. After gathering up his gear, we made our way to the Alewife Bertucci's where the picture above was taken. He asked that I not publish his picture in a newspaper, so I've blurred him out in the public version of this blog.
Frank is not homeless. As it happens, he lives a few blocks from my new apartment in a room he rents from a guy who moved to Mexico for a few hundred a month. And 20 years ago he lived a few houses down from where I was spent much of my time, at the intersection of Loring and Cross in Winchester.
He's married and has two kids who live with their aunt. He used to hang shades and blinds until he got laid off a couple years ago. A friend of his had been panhandling at the same spot, so when his unemployment ran out and he needed money for rent, he started going with his buddy.
He's was once jailed for seven months for violating an altercation and restraining order violation against his brother. A few weeks ago a cop took his license and threatened to punch him out if he saw him on DOC land again. Sometimes cops hastle him for panhandling, but sometimes they give him money.
He can't tell what kinds of people will be generous, but generally people who drive high end cars ("Land Rovers and Mercedes") aren't.
On a typical day he makes $100+. Saturdays are usually the best.
He knows most of the other people who work the area ("a few Haitians, some heavy girls, and a tall kid who thinks he runs the place"). It used to be that the first person there got the spot, but now everyone wants the same spots, so if there's too many guys (or girls) they take turns.
His wife has had cancer and has recovered, but isn't well enough to work. They both are thankful to live in Massachusetts for their health care.
I have no way of knowing how honest Frank was with me, but nothing he said seemed implausible or exaggerated for sympathy. His life had taken a hard turn, but he knew there were people worse off than him. I thanked him for his time and his story, gave him the promised $100 and a $20 tip. He was grateful and said if I ever wanted to talk again he'd be happy to grab a soda with me.