The late singer/songwriter/labor saint Utah Phillips was both a practitioner and connoisseur of life on the bum — a phrase with no pejorative overtones for him or for me. Not that I imagine myself embracing it. Yes, every once in a while I think about what life might be like on the streets and how I’d make out hustling spare change. Necessity can make lots of things happen, but I’m not sure it would make me a good panhandler.
What I lack is the ability to craft what Phillips called a gaff. He used to talk about how disappointed he was in most modern spare-change come-ons, which mostly amount to literally that: “Spare change?” (A popular local variation: the Berkeley guys who say as you enter a store, “Maybe on your way out. Whatever you can spare … (pregnant pause) … without hurting yourself.”)
Phillips gave an example of a gaff that went something like this: “Mister, I’ve got a chicken in this sack and I’m going to go back to my camp and cook it and all I need now is a little salt and pepper to do it right. Can you help me out with that?” We’re not talking high art. We’re talking about storytelling that’s plausible and serves the suppliant’s need to ease his potential benefactor toward generosity, past qualms about giving something for nothing.
On Sunday, a day so warm and clear and so out of character for November it shone like a gift, I went over to a hardware and gardening store to buy some dirt. When I got out of our minivan (current mileage 198,000), I stopped to tie my shoes. A guy approached me from behind and asked, “Do you have a lug wrench?” Without turning to see who was asking, I said, “No.” The guy walked away muttering. I thought to myself, “Yeah, OK, I have a lug wrench.” So I opened the back of the van and pulled it out and followed the Lug Wrench Man across the parking lot. “Here you go,” I said. I was even ready to help him use it.
He turned and walked toward me. A black guy. Maybe in his 40s. Wiry. Intense. Working on a cigarette that he’d smoked nearly down to the filter. He was holding a Bank of America ATM card.
“That won’t work,” he said. And then he explained how his car had gotten a flat but that the special wheels on his ride had a special locking nut that he didn’t have the tool for.
“Where’s your car?” I asked, thinking I’d go and take a look.
Oh — it was nearby. He’d been trying for hours to get someone to help him. “Look at my hands,” he said, holding them out. “I’ve been trying to get those damn things off with my bare hands.”
I apologized for not talking to him when he first walked up. “I’ve lived here for a long time, and I think I spent my first ten years saying ‘yes,’ and I’ve been saying ‘no’ ever since.”
“I’m sorry for my attitude,” he said. “I’ve just been out here for hours and nobody will help. ‘The black guy,’ right? The police just told me I have 20 minutes to move my car or they’ll have it towed.”
I asked his name. “Anthony,” he said. We shook hands. He volunteered he worked for the Berkeley school district. As a janitor. Which schools? He rattled off the names of a few and added, “All of them.” He was still smoking the cigarette. Now it was down to the filter.
I pointed out we were standing outside a hardware store — maybe they had the tool he needed. “They won’t let me borrow a wrench — they don’t loan tools.”
Where was he headed? How close were we to someone who could help? “South San Francisco,” he said. Clear across the bay.
I returned to the possible fixes that might be waiting inside the hardware store. He repeated that they didn’t loan tools. But of course, I was thinking about what he, or perhaps I, might buy that could get him out of his jam. I’m thick, but not thick enough that I hadn’t seen where this was headed. “Anthony” was working a gaff and working it hard.
And at this key moment, he said, “Maybe I can get a couple of cans of Fix-a-Flat, that’ll get me seventy-five miles. If I can get that up there at Walgreen’s, it’s seven ninety-nine a can. …” He held up the ATM card. “But I don’t have any cash. But give me your address and I can get it back to you.”
Let’s stop and do an inventory here. Motorist in trouble. His car’s someplace else, suffering from a problem that’s simple enough but somehow unfixable. Of the seven million people abroad in the Bay Area on this lovely afternoon, he’s lit on you as his salvation — in fact, as the only person decent enough to even consider reaching out to help. Everything that’s implausible about his situation has been plausibly framed (though still easy to puncture with a little insistence: “Let’s see the car. I want to see that flat tire.”) Your keen instinct, the one that prompted you to say “no” without so much as a glance over your shoulder — well, you’ve left that behind. What do you do now?
I take out my wallet. As it turns out, I have eight bucks in cash. Enough for one can of Fix-a-Flat, or for a decent six-pack, which would be a nice addition to the afternoon as it winds down.
“OK–here’s what I’ve got,” I say. I hand him the bills. He says, “Can I get it back to you?” I think: Do I want this guy having my home address?
“No, no,” I say. “That’s OK. This is just a … a gesture. I just want to give it to you. So you can do what you have to do. Good luck with that tire.”
I went in to buy my dirt. Anthony walked away, and I think I heard him muttering.