Everybody runs into one now and then. Some dirty, tattered looking person, holding a discarded coffee cup, asking for change. Most of my friends just politely turn down their requests, sometimes offering up an excuse. Me? I give them two dollars. Invariably, once Beggie Von Homeless is safely out of earshot, I get a lecture about it. “Oh, they’re just taking advantage of you. You know they are going to spend it on booze. He’s probably not even really homeless, it’s just an act. Why do you give these people money?” Why? I’ll tell you why, because they earned it. You toss a quarter to the street musician (or “Busker” if you are up on your vagrant terminology), so why shouldn’t I reward this fine hobo for an equally entertaining performance. After all, that’s what it is. A performance. And some of these people really commit.
Not convinced? One of my favorite bums is a skinny white guy I like to call “The Mountaineer.” I call him that because he always wears this sort of Polar Fleece coat that you might wear if you were scaling Everest. Really top shelf stuff. For a while, I penalized him for that. He only got one buck. After all, he was effectively out of costume. However, just today, he earned that extra dollar. After he fished a coffee cup from the garbage, the tool of his trade, he noticed somebody toss a cigarette on the ground with maybe two more puffs left on it. What does our thrifty friend do? He picks it up, and takes a nice long drag off of it. Didn’t even let it go out. You know what I call that? Commitment. Either this guy is a real bum with a really nice jacket, or he is an Oscar worthy actor. Either way, he deserves the dollar. I mean, honestly, you could give Robert DeNiro twenty million dollars and he wouldn’t pull that stunt. Jolly good show.
Now, there are a few guys who have gone the extra mile, and they were paid accordingly. One enterprising performer, “Kentucky”, regaled my friend and I with a carefully detailed and entirely consistent tale. This guy worked hard at it. He had a job – complete with address, he was from Kentucky, he had kids (with names!), every detail of his obviously false story was carefully laid out. That made him a writer AND an actor. Hey, he even set the stage by asking us where the bathroom was. Then he actually WENT there and CAME BACK! Continuity, drama, the man had it all. He got 11 dollars.
Not everybody is a winner, though. One guy near my house starts off strong, but has yet to earn himself a single cent. He pulls the old “Muttering Wacko” part, and he does it pretty well, but honestly, that isn’t a character that rakes in the dough. That is a character that makes you reach into your pocket and stick your car keys between your fingers like Wolverine, hoping he doesn’t have some sort of blood borne illness. One time we shared this exchange while I was waiting to cross the street.
Bum: They’ll tell ya… I’m the Wildman…
Me: (Pulling back my headphones) You are?
Bum: (Walks away like Popeye.)
Now you see, a real professional would have told me WHY he was the wildman. Then he might have gotten at least a handful of change. Instead, all he got was a nervous look out of the corner of my eye.
Well, I hope I’ve made my point. A musician can earn his money on the street and he might be annoying, but he won’t be scorned. What can an actor do? Would you toss a dollar to a guy reciting Hamlet? No. So the aspiring actors out there have to play a character to earn their scratch. I bow to you, con men. You work hard for that wadded up single, and you might think no one even notices. Well I do, and I appreciate it. Now go out there, eat a pizza crust with hair on it in front of me. Blow a snot rocket onto a pigeon. Wear your underwear on the outside. And do it knowing that this is one guy who is looking forward to your next performance.