(Orginally published in the 3/13 issue)
Before witnessing a slit throat and the behind-the-scheme tactics of the city hustlers that night, I sat on a New Jersey Transit bus, thumbing through unread pages of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” while staring waywardly at the suburban moving landscape. The 403 evening bus was headed to Philadelphia. On Saturday, March 3, I was headed for a rough week of homelessness.
Once in the city, I boarded the first available Broad Street Line for Allegheny Avenue, the location of my studio apartment.
Once there, I emptied the pockets of my eighth-grade JNCO jeans: a cell phone, my wallet and plenty of lint. By 6 p.m. I had blown kisses to my bed, fridge, deodorant and sheltered living, backtracking down the stairs to a gentle night breeze. Nine hours later, I had blown a quarter of the week’s $10 allotment. In decomposing running shoes, I kicked whirling debris from North Philadelphia to the glistening
surface of Center City.
Beneath the rococo buildings and bright lights, however, laid signs of a rotting town: proof that more than just the sewers were fuming. Homeless people are swept over to the streets’ margins. Some are vocal, but many lay diffident.
I was to join them in their fight for spring break, an experience that left me chronically hungry for things other than food.
With nothing but time and only the contents of my backpack, I toured the city looking for oddities:
Ben Franklin Bridge trolls, subway entertainers and even the occasional rabid cat, all of whose absences left me feeling deserted in the 25-degree cold. After four hours of walking myself warm – but hungry – I got a Mac Attack and descended upon the McDonald’s, located at Broad and Arch streets. Due to my budget, however, it was more like a $1.49 Snack Wrap attack.
For the next hour – or until workers kicked me out – I anxiously sat at my red table, peering through the panoramic windows and into my future, a night among the detritus of society. It didn’t take long for the Snack Wrap to mingle with my stomach’s butterflies. In search of nightlife, I strolled down Arch Street until I saw the streets teeming with teenagers around the Trocadero Theatre. While the Troc was preparing a midnight performance, Allen Geist was in the midst of his own act about a block away. A boyish 27-year-old Caucasian wearing a slick bubble jacket, Geist approached me as I exited Wawa. He told me he got mugged by thugs, stripped of his backpack and is now unable to pay for his train ticket back home to Brooklyn, N.Y.
“By any chance, would you have, like, $26.45 to spare? Anything? Please,” he pleaded. Once I informed him that I, too, was looking for cash as a Temple journalist temporarily relegated to the homeless lifestyle, his story changed.
Geist said he is from Allentown, Pa. He said he’s a hustler, and he’s homeless. “If you be around in an hour, I can help you out,” Geist said, his voice trailing off with his eyes. “Meet me back her at 12:15 [a.m.]. I got some business to tend to first.”
That left me with an hour to ponder over his invitation. Once again, I was attracted
to the neon benevolence of the open yellow arches, this one, located at 942 Market St., open till midnight. There, I compiled questions, ranging from hard-hitting ones about panhandling and sleeping arrangements to harder-hitting ones dealing with possible drug use and jail time.
I ran under The Gallery at Market East’s dark overpass and met him at the end of his business call made via payphone. He asked for my student I.D. He then asked for something else.
“You see that group of people?” he said, pointing down the street. “Do me a favor; put your notebook and recorder away.”
Unknowing of what he was going to show me, I complied, stuffing my notebook in my backpack and – on second thought – held onto my recorder. He permitted its use so long as it was concealed.
While we walked in the directed area, he told me who was doing all the talking.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” he said to a triad of twenty-somethings. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to bother you. There’s a bus station on Chinatown – yeah, right across the corner – but to make a long story short, me and my brother …,” he deadpanned, pointing to me, “… got mugged and we’re trying to get back to Brooklyn. By any chance would you have, like, $26.45 to spare? Anything? Please.”
While I held my poker face, they glanced at each other and dug through their pockets.
Hook, line and quarters.
“That’s all we can do, man. I’m sorry. We’re sorry,” said one man handing his cash over to Geist, who counted to the sum of 67 cents.
“I ain’t got no more change.” “God bless,” said Geist, turning on his heel and almost into oncoming traffic. “See, what you learn out here is that you got to have a story. Look over there. There’s some guy doing something.”
Over there was an apparent parking attendant collecting money from a driver entering the lot.
“He says he owns it. He’ll take the parking
lot and says he owns it, so that he gets $20 for them to get in the lot,” Geist said. “He ain’t own the f—ing parking lot; he’s a motherf—ing crackhead!”
For Geist, there was nobody spared from his ruse. He shamelessly interrupted cell phone chats and would harass people into nearby stores and hotel lobbies. He would change his pitch for something more underhand: “Yo bud, can I bum a cigarette?” He reasoned, “If someone gives you a cigarette, they’ll probably give you money.”
In about 10 minutes, Team Hustle was turned down seven times, until wheedling a couple subway tokens from a good-doer.
“Man, I’m done with this game. A game’s only a game when it’s fun,” he said. “Right now, it ain’t.”
Geist didn’t always depend on a game for survival. The self-proclaimed “entertainer”
said he left Allentown to find work, and landed an unspecified job for three months, as well as a Germantown apartment. Now, along with time at his “lady friend’s” place, Geist finds transient refuge on the warm benches of Center City’s Market
East Station, a hostel he refers to as “the Homeless Hilton.”
Although sometimes cold, Geist never goes hungry. “Yo, these people holding signs saying ‘Hungry and Homeless’…there’s no such thing,” he said, remarking on how he fed off shelters as many as nine times a day. “If you homeless, you ain’t hungry.”
Feigning hunger outside Crown Chicken,
Geist sold his tokens to a young bus-stopper for $4. In the course of a little more than 40 minutes, Geist earned $6.67, or as he said, a slow day at the office. With a game slicker than his hair, the unctuous man spoke of an artifice where he sold a box of CDs at Tower Records to youngsters under the guise of being a member of the band performing at the Trocadero.
“So we basically came up with idea that we can spread our music out and also help with the recording costs,” he recalled the line. “‘It’s only a dollar donation or whatever you can spare to support the arts.’ Support the arts? Motherf—ers were breaking out fives, 10s. I made a killing off it. For free. For free.”
Geist had to “take a detour,” so I gravitated to LOVE Park at 1:25 a.m. and specifically to one of a handful of benches without dividers. My backpack served as a headrest, and I began to feel comfortable with my new situation, even with skateboarders whizzing by me. They didn’t know who I really was, I would say to myself. This warming thought was cooled with just a whispering breeze tunneling through my ankle cuffs. Slowly, though, I drifted off into tomorrow under the blanketing starless night. Tomorrow came 20 minutes later with chills. For fear of shattering into pieces, I stayed on the bench – in the fetal position – for a minute longer. The blanket, my mom’s parting gift, was still tucked away; homeless or otherwise, I wouldn’t be caught wearing that bib.
I tried telling myself that this feeling, or hyperthermia, would pass. If not, I was going to be sent home early.
I rose, clenched my teeth, tightened my back and rattled like a baby’s toy past blocks of a ghost town. This would turn out to be the warmest night of the week. I walked by a closed 7-Eleven to the next nearest 24-hour convenience store – an inconvenient 15-minute walk to Wawa, located at 2040 Hamilton St. Once in I immediately defrosted myself by the coffee machine. I stared at the cappuccino machine as if it were Eva Longoria and, against better judgment, released $1.39 hot chocolate into my 20-ounce cup. I sipped on it past Kelly Drive to Boathouse
Row. It felt like I and the Wawa clerk were the only people alive.
Once my cup started to run dry, I ran for cover. I ran to the Homeless Hilton.
At 4 a.m., two stragglers pried open the door of the warm Market East Station and I was careful not to step on one of the five scattered souls lining the walls to the lobby. Two of the multiple personalities of one wallflower were having an intimate conversation. I slumped down by an open wall and fell asleep. “Are you homeless?” a bearded man barked, waking me. Listless and drowsy, my silence forced him to repeat himself. To my expectation, he was instantly incredulous of my story.
“So what, are you doing a documentary or something?” the homeless thirty-something
asked. I said yes.
“So where’s your camera?” I told him there is more than just a video documentary. He disagreed and argued semantics some more, leaving me to take a taciturn deportment. I didn’t feel scared, just a little threatened.
“What’s the documentary about then?”
I informed him and he informed me – without being prompted – that he wasn’t carrying a knife. Instead he had a tawdry 14-karat gold chain he was willing to sell. A homeless couple descended from the elevator. The male stormed to the exit, cursing the teenage girl behind him.
“So what is this documentary really about?” The man returned still raving mad and headed downstairs to the station, where the girl followed. Rumors surfaced that there was a relationship between the two, despite the difference of about 15 years.
Ascending from the stairwell soon stumbled a middle-aged woman, holding her neck and clearly frazzled.
“That motherf—er is going to jail! Look, that f—er slit my neck” she said, revealing bloody hands and a gash on her throat, heading for the exit “He knew she was only 16 years old!”
In the distance, the screaming continued.
“I hope you miscarriage!” the crazed man said.The room was now frozen and everyone
was in disbelief. All but one.
“So what’s this documentary going to be about?”
Steve Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.