Why Homeless People Are so Smart

When I was growing up on Lafayette Square on the near south side of St. Louis, there was a skid row filled with homeless people, a couple of blocks away from the house where I lived.. As kids, we would play terrible tricks on them. We’d pay one of them, a man named Red, a quarter to swallow a lit cigarette. We thought it was funny when he would cough and gag for several minutes after he swallowed it. Then he would soothe his parched, and most likely burnt, mouth with a bottle of cheap wine from the nearby liquor store. It was a good thing for him that we soon ran out of quarters.

Back then, in the early seventies, it seemed that you ran into homeless people all the time, especially in my neighborhood. Later, when I got a job in an office downtown, there were always a couple of them waiting for us as we walked to the Serbian church on the corner to get lunch. One time, when I had to go City Hall to take care of some paperwork, there was a homeless person on the steps selling peanuts in brown paper bags. I discovered I didn’t have enough change to feed the meter, and so the queer old peanut guy charged me five bucks for a stale bag of peanuts just so I could get change.

There’re all kinds of names people call the homeless, most of them derogatory: Bums, drunks, moochers, panhandlers. Hobos aren’t really homeless people; they usually travel around the country looking for work. I once had a restaurant near the Interstate and I fed one of them and pretty soon a lot more showed up. Seems my hobo friend had made a sculpture out of cigarettes and hung it in the restroom, alerting other hobos that there was free food to be had.

Today, some people who aren’t homeless can make a living out of pretending to BE homeless. There’s a story about the well-off guy who dresses in raggedly clothes and makes money panhandling, then drives off in his new SUV. One trick that my girlfriend and I once fell for was a woman with a small child, who had the hood of her car propped open and claimed that she was out of gas and had forgotten her money at home. We each gave her a dollar to buy gas just to see her drive off the parking lot few minutes later.

Maybe it’s because of that cigarette swallowing that I had Red do as a teenage delinquent, but I usually give the panhandlers some money now, even if I think it’s fake. I used to donate boxes of food when I had the restaurant and sometimes I went downtown to the homeless shelter to help out.

I don’t see too many homeless people anymore because I no longer live in the city; that is except at the library. I should say at the three libraries that I frequent. Each library has its own homeless person. They usually reside in the reading room and they are always there when the library is open. The chairs there are pretty comfy, because a lot of the time they are asleep. But I see that when they aren’t sleeping, they are reading. Hours and hours of reading every day so that must make them some of the smartest people around.