The Local Lens
Wed, May 06, 2015
By Thom Nickels
I’m walking through Center City with Sam, a man from Reno, Nevada. It’s 2AM, the bars are closed, and Sam doesn’t want to call the night quits and go back to his hotel to prepare for his 7AM flight home. He wants more of Philly.
"The bars are closed, Sam," I said. "This is it, unless you’re a member of a private club."
Five feet away from us a cab is waiting for customers. The driver overhears our conversation and adds his two-cents:
"In New York City the bars stay open all night!"
"They’re open in Reno, too," Sam said, alluding to Reno’s casino life. "Closing down at two seems awfully early."
The cab driver and Sam start talking and soon the driver says he’ll take Sam to the airport when the sun comes up. They exchange numbers and, as a bonus, the driver promises to give Sam a wake-up call.
I’ve been with Sam for a total of four hours and I already feel like we’re best friends. When he suggests that I hop into the cab and take it to Fishtown, I do just that. The El has already closed for the night, and this is a much better option than waiting for the shuttle bus. Twenty-five minutes ago Sam put a twenty dollar bill in my hand for a taxi because I told him that I missed the last El but that the shuttle bus was "just fine."
"No it’s not," he said.
Not only did Sam, "The Stranger," give me taxi fare, he bought me dinner at Moriarty’s Pub on Walnut Street. We had a lot to share in Moriarty’s but it was mostly Sam who did the talking. I had asked if everyone from Reno was that nice.
As I hop into the taxi, I give Sam a hug and watch as the seventh or eighth homeless person of the night comes up to him and asks for help.
"What’s he going to say to this one?" I wonder.
Let’s backtrack a little:
Five hours earlier I was hanging out with my friends Lena, Jane and Brad at an art reception at Freeman’s Auction House. After the show, we went to Cosi’s near the Academy House for coffee and dessert.
When Brad leaves Cosi, Lena, Jane and I start talking about the relative nature of sexual attraction. We’re getting into it, French-café style, when a well dressed passerby, a dark haired guy about 35, turns in our direction and says, "What’s this about attraction?"
This is more than just a random question. The stranger is really interested, so much so that Lena offers him a seat and suddenly it’s a four-way with a new friend. Sam tells us that he’s a software engineer from Reno, and that he comes to Philly once a year on business and that he looks forward to the trip like a kid looks forward to Christmas. Philly, he says, is positively the greatest city. This is all Jane needs to hear. She invites everybody up to her 36th floor condo so that Sam can see some spectacular views of the city.
Fifteen minutes later the four of us are staring out over the city lights on Jane’s balcony with its bull’s eye view of the roof of the Academy of Music.
Sam takes our little group by storm. He’s a one man charisma machine. He has us hypnotized; we are thoroughly under his spell. We linger a long time at Jane’s place, but when we disperse it is only Sam and I who wind up back at Cosi’s.
"Let’s get some dinner, dude," Sam said to me. "I’m starving."
While deciding where to eat—it’s not easy at 1AM—Sam tells me about a homeless man who asked him for money earlier in the evening. "There he is right over there," he said, pointing to a guy in a North Face jacket and white sneakers, scurrying up a small side street to pee.
"I was going to get him something to eat," Sam said, "but then he started saying how he only wanted money for his hungry kids, lying, talking about how starved they were, and how he was evicted from his place and then fired from his job and forced to live on the streets without food. It’s bullshit. He’s got money. Just look at those hundred-dollar sneakers. I’d have more respect for him if he just said he needed the money for beer or drugs."
Not soon after Sam tells me the man’s story, the guy waves to us and crosses the street. Suddenly, it’s high-five buddy-time. North Face wants to know what we’re doing, implying he’d be happy to tag along. Sam toys with him, asks him if he’s gotten food yet for those starving kids but the guy says no, he hasn’t gotten the money to feed them, or money to buy himself something to eat.
"So what you doin?" he asked Sam.
Sam says he’s on his way to eat, after which the man asks for money. "So what you guys doin’ later?" he asked.
In Moriarty’s, Sam tells me about his life as a foster child, how he was raised by a Catholic family, a Mormon family and then a Jehovah’s Witness family. He relates tales of alcoholism, abuse, drug addiction, and stories about how he used to have nothing to his name. Now he travels throughout the US with an expense account.
After dinner, we’re out on the street again because Sam likes to soak up the sights and sounds of Philly. Another homeless man approaches.
This one is all about "Hey, what’s up," but the good cheer ends at the mention of money. He’s an older guy, kind of doughy and soft looking, not tough at all. He has the look of a perpetual victim but underneath his sad eyes I detect a snake in the grass. He’s tall and big boned and looks extremely well fed.
Sam questions him. He lays it on thick. How did you arrive at this point in your life? What happened? The guy said he doesn’t have a job. His deadpan monotone is even more annoying than the look on his face. Like the first guy, his sneakers look brand new. I keep thinking Sam is going to give him something because of all the questions he asks, but this doesn’t happen. The guy doesn’t ask if he can hang out with us but shuffles off to the next person, his sad face even looking sadder than before.
Sam tells me about the time he was unemployed, although it wasn’t for a long time.
"These guys, you know," he said, "if they just put their willpower into finding work, any kind of work, they could do it. Even if that meant going down to the river and washing their face in the water in an attempt to get clean, then walking into a place and asking if there is anything they could do, sweeping floors, taking out the trash - anything, going from one place all day and never giving up and even going down to the river again and washing their face, over and over again, then looking for work the next day and the day after until something happened. They would find something if they did that. This kind of heavy focus would work. It would produce results but what happens with these guys is that they are not 100 percent serious. Panhandling becomes their career, and drugs or alcohol sidetracks them. Yeah, I like to play with them. I like to make them see themselves, but sometimes I will help them if I feel they’re real."
We take a walk up Latimer Street, then down Walnut and Locust and finally down 13th Street where we are interrupted by a skinny women in a ratty looking turban coming up the PATCO subway stairs. She catches Sam’s eye, and suddenly we are transported to the Wilma or the Suzanne Roberts stage.
"Guys, how you all doin? You know, this weather is nice but my husband beats me and my children have been sent away, and now I’m walkin’ around cause I can’t get home, everything’s been shut down, I’ve been goin’ around like this for hours, goin’ up and down these stairs, askin’ for help. I need to get back into singin’ and this band I was with…"
She mentions the name of the band but I am already not paying attention. I try to imagine her as a singer with a lily in her hair, or slanting a microphone sideways down to the floor as she belts out a jazz tune.
She unleashes more biographical information, but I have my back turned to her while gazing out onto 13th Street. The gay bars have let out and all hell is breaking loose. The quiet of the city has been broken. Sam and I walk up 13th Street, past Woody’s bar. Soon we are on Broad Street by the Doubletree Hotel, where Sam is staying. We stop and talk some more, getting philosophical now, when Sam notices another homeless guy sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk under a streetlight. "Who the hell would sleep there?" he asked. "Do you see the way he keeps bobbing his head up and down, like he never allows it to touch the ground?" To me it seems like just another Philly scene, but Sam is fascinated. "We don’t have anything like this in Reno," he said, "People sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk. It’s incredible. Do you think he’s a spy? Do you think these homeless people have a spy network? Is that why all these homeless people are coming up to me?"
"He’s not a spy, Sam," I said to him, "This is just…Philly."
When Sam suggests that we go over and talk to the guy, I say yes because I want to see where he’s going with this. Up close to the sleeper, I can see that this is a serious case, someone who’s been on the streets for a while and drugged or drunk into unconsciousness. He has his head flat on the sidewalk, as it turns out—the bobbing of the head was just a reaction to a drug. Sam leans over him and asks if he is okay. He calls him "brother" and keeps repeating that he shouldn’t be sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk.
"Hey brother, hey brother," he said over and over again.
Finally, the man rouses. He thinks Sam is an undercover cop or a big-shot restaurant owner who wants him off his sidewalk. He doesn’t know that Sam is just a well dressed pussycat (who poses as a killer-type) from Reno. The guy stands up obediently when Sam urges him to find a dark, private alley where he can be cozy and safe. The guy is so stoned it is hard for him to talk or walk, and his jeans are falling down. He wobbles towards the curb. He’s too out of it to say anything except to ask for money.
A few minutes later we bump into the North Face jacket guy.
"Hey, my friend," Sam said, "Did you ever find something to eat?" Sam knows he’s not after food.
The guys says no, and then, like a robot, adds, "what you doin? You got a dollar?"
Sam tells him that he’s spent all his money on me.
It’s a joke, of course, fit for a cheap laugh, but by the end of our walk around the city I lost count of the numbers of homeless men we met, these creatures of the night, or so-called "expensive sneaker people down on their luck." Men who can’t or won’t find jobs, and to whom it will never occur to go down by the river, wash their face off in a symbolic baptism so that they can try to get into a different groove.