“I got a job,” Pokey told me when I first met him. I had asked him if he’d ever considered seeking employment. “It’s working you.”
Now I’m sitting in an alley off Higgins Avenue somewhere south of Broadway with my back against a filthy brick wall, watching as Pokey puts in a few hours at the office. It’s around noon on Thursday, just as most of Missoula’s working stiffs are taking their lunch breaks, and Pokey and his small band of street kids are just getting started.
As the steady stream of professionals, boutique clerks and nonprofit crusaders flows by, Pokey eyes each “custy” (a derogatory word for you and me, translating roughly to “customer”) and picks his hustle.
“Hey, nice power tie,” Pokey says as a man in a clean white dress shirt and neatly pressed navy blue slacks walks by.
Keeping his stride, the guy flips up the banded red and navy tie to admire it: “Yeah, thanks. That’s because I make the big decisions,” he says.
And there’s Pokey’s opening.
“So how about sparing some change for the little guy?”
But Mr. Power Tie deftly sidesteps the trap, blowing off the grimy punk with the choppy Mohawk and the hole in his right earlobe big enough to stick a highlighter through.
Pokey registers a look of mild contempt.
But it’s early, the sun is shining and it’s cooler than it’s been the previous two afternoons. Pokey’s already had a couple of breakfast beers and his mood is up, so he moves on to the next mark.
Just then the perfect custy happens across our alley: a 30-something blond with a full shopping bag in her left hand and a cell phone pressed against her ear with her right.
“Excuse me,” he says politely as she passes by.
The woman stops and turns.
“Hang on,” she says into the phone.
“Would you happen to have a little spare change?” Pokey asks in his best Oliver Twist, sans the British accent.
“Hang on. I’m talking to...” She turns to Pokey: “what are…I mean, what do I call…Or, what do you call yourselves anyway?”
“We’re just street kids, ma’am” Pokey says with a smile.
“Hang on,” she says into the phone a third time. “I’m being stopped by a street kid.”
With shopping bags in one hand, cell phone in the other, the woman produces a purse and starts rummaging.
“Who carries cash anymore?” she wonders out loud.
“I take checks and all major forms of credit cards,” Pokey says, grinning.
The woman laughs and pulls a crisp $5 bill from her purse and hands it to Pokey.
“Here,” she says. “Sorry, that’s all I’ve got on me.” The woman gives Pokey a hug. Pokey thanks her and turns back into the alley.
He seems happy with, but not surprised by, the woman’s generosity.
I’m downright flabbergasted.
“Bye,” she says, smiling as she walks away.
Over the course of the next 30 minutes I watch as Pokey and his clan make more money panhandling on the sidewalk than most locals make in two or three hours of honest work, and I begin to wonder if maybe Missoula’s street kids don’t have it so bad.
It’s 9 a.m. on a gorgeous sun-filled midsummer Thursday morning in Caras Park, and the first of the homeless folks who frequent this downtown gathering ground are already going about their business.
Kurt, a 22-year-old street kid from Billings (in this group everyone’s a street kid, regardless of age) pulls a blue squirt bottle from his overstuffed gray backpack and begins washing his dingy blond mohawk. As he rubs his left hand back and forth over his drenched head, Tim, a 56-year-old Missoula native and proud alcoholic, takes a long slug off a 22-ounce can of Steel Reserve 211 and mutters “now see how you are?” through the orange whiskers on his grizzled face. A 36-year-old faux-platinum blond named Kim sits on the adjacent picnic table with her knees pressed tightly together as she pulls hurried drags off a cheap rolled cigarette. She exudes sorrow as she sits there in her denim jean skirt and neatly tucked in blouse staring off at the M on Mount Jumbo, though you can’t see her eyes behind the mirrored lenses of her flashy red sunglasses. She looks like she might be trying to compose herself after a long sob as she sips off the communal can of Steel Reserve whenever Tim lets it out of his grasp, which is usually during a coughing fit or when he puts it down to roll a cigarette.
Johmb (pronounced Jom-B) has the brightest eyes of the bunch. They peer out from beneath a battered black baseball cap bearing a Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon patch stitched across the front. Johmb says he’s a minister turned refugee who took to the road last year when the levees of his hometown Chalmette, La., were breached by Hurricane Katrina, putting 99 percent of the unincorporated community under water for more than two weeks.
As Tim reaches for a fresh can of Steel Reserve, a scarecrow-like hippie with a long dirty-blond goatee and skin like finely tanned leather slaps his hand away and points to the open can that still has some swill left in it. The hippie goes by the handle of “211,” and he has to count on his hands to figure out how old he is: 36.
“It’s been a long time since somebody’s asked me that,” he says.
None of these tramps have ID, so you have to take them at their word when they tell you who they are, where they’re from or how old they are.
“I live at 420 River St.,” 211 quips.
Like a traveling performing troupe waiting for an audience to arrive, they take turns spouting clever one-liners and hyperbolic street stories rehearsed a thousand times before to anyone who will listen: “I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs,” the preacher Johmb tells me in his Creole accent. “I just smoke, but I won’t go to hell for that. I’ll just smell like I’ve been there.”
“Tell ’em, preacher,” says Tim, rolling his red glassy eyes as he takes another long pull from the oversized beer can.
They’re amiable enough, and on this beautiful summer morning they seem pretty happy, save for Kim. Johmb says he embraces the newfound freedoms of his nomadic lifestyle. Kurt loves traveling, meeting new people and seeing the world. Tim is content and darkly jolly in his drunkenness. The barefooted 211 is happy to whittle his days away stringing together hemp necklaces and conversations in the park. Kim, on the other hand, says she’s tried to change her life, but hasn’t succeeded. The deck is stacked against her at every turn she says, complaining that she was booted out of a homeless shelter in Helena the day before because she’s a woman. Judging by her erratic and slightly slurred speech this early in the morning, I suspect there might have been other reasons.
“Anyone hungry?” Johmb asks.
“Sure, yeah, I could eat,” says Kurt.
Johmb promises to return with a bag of chips, then he turns to me: “How about you? Did you eat breakfast? You want some food? The Lord said ‘feed the masses.’”
I respectfully decline since I’d eaten a bowl of Cheerios that morning, so Johmb smiles and then mounts his 10-speed and cycles off in the direction of the nearest convenience store.
While Johmb is out getting breakfast, Kurt offers to show me his traveling stash. With no regard for the frayed stitches along the seams of the battered frame pack, he grabs the bottom and starts tugging violently until its contents spill out onto the bricks. Then he carefully separates the cache so I can get a good look at everything: a grubby pair of blue jeans, a black sweatshirt, a brown T-shirt, an inflatable sleeping pad, a studded leather jacket with small buttons pinned to the collar, an empty hemp sack, four permanent markers, several toothbrushes, a bottle of liquid soap, a roll of floss, a gleaming blue Leatherman pocket knife, a screwdriver, a homemade sack crafted from the torn-off leg of a pair of jeans and a composition notebook.
“You really don’t need much,” he says. “Really, when you think about it, our forefathers didn’t have much more than this when they settled Montana. I’m Irish and Scottish, and I believe the Irish and the Scots are destined to travel.”
A little while later, Johmb returns with a grocery bag stuffed with a loaf of white bread, a package of sliced ham, some beef jerky, a bag of Doritos and a single Dr. Pepper.
Johmb carefully tears open the ham and sets it down on the table.
“Look at this good expensive ham,” he says, imploring his comrades to dig in. “Go ahead now, feed your belly. Go on, feed your belly, ya’ll.”
No one has to be told twice. They take turns grabbing handfuls of ham and beef jerky to make poor-man’s po-boy sandwiches.
It’s about 10:30 now, and more homeless people are starting to make their way to the park.
“By the afternoon this hillside will be covered with us,” 211 says, pointing to a shaded mound between the Caras Park pavilion and the Clark Fork.
A stocky street kid with a short-trimmed blond chinstrap beard walks up, his right arm thickly bound in a splint and Ace bandages. A few nights ago Daniel was stabbed by a buddy just yards from where we’re now sitting. An argument gone bad ended with one tramp in jail for felony assault and another in the hospital with a near fatal injury. Untied high-tops stained red with his own blood bear evidence of the gory wound. He groans at the sight of beef jerky because he can’t eat. He’s running late for surgery, and the doctors have forbidden him to eat anything 12 hours prior to the operation. He grabs a handful of jerky and stuffs it into his shoulder bag, smaller than a bike courier’s tote, and saves it for later.
Then he walks off toward St. Patrick Hospital and Health Sciences Center.
As the sun continues to make its climb over the Higgins Avenue bridge, the growing assembly of homeless takes refuge in the shade on the hill. The grass is damp from overnight irrigation and trampled by the heavy daily use of …well…tramps. A shifty-looking street kid known as “Russia” makes his way to the hill and drops his substantial pack onto the grass. His orange sleeveless T-shirt is torn almost completely up the sides, and I can see dozens of circular scabs and scars on his arms, stomach and chest. It looks as though someone carefully extinguished a pack’s worth of lit cigarettes on his skin.
“I fell off my skateboard,” he says with a grin that leaves me wondering if I should laugh or run. The remark gets good giggles from the crowd, which has obviously heard the line before but still revels in an unsuspecting stranger’s reaction.
“You’ve heard of S&M, yes?” he asks me in an impossible-to-place accent. Again I muster a silly little chortle that gets even more laughs.
Right about then two Missoula police officers roll up. They park their bikes next to the bathrooms about 30 feet away but say nothing. One goes in while the other methodically rubs in gobs of sunscreen on his neck, arms and legs. After about 10 minutes they mount their bikes and ride off in the direction of the Brennan’s Wave viewing platform.
“The cops don’t really hassle us in Missoula,” says 211. “That’s one of the things that makes this town so nice. The people are generous and the cops don’t usually give you a hard time.”
As 211 explains that it’s common for him to take in $50 in a day without even having to work at it, Mikey walks up with his 1-year-old mutt Karma. He’d rolled out of his sleeping bag just a few feet from the Clark Fork just minutes earlier. The hardest part about living on the street is finding a place to sleep. In Missoula it may not be hard for a street kid to earn $50 in a day (though most, if not all of that, will be spent on beer), but when it comes to finding a spot to sleep, you take it where you can get it.
“If cops find you they usually just wake you up and tell you to move along,” says Mikey. “They can give you a ticket, but they’ve never given me one. They’re pretty cool usually.”
Right around noon Pokey shows up. Whereas most of the street kids have been actually sleeping on the street, Pokey has hooked up with a local girl and been sleeping at her place. The crowd spots him and his albino red nose pit bull terrier Dumpster from across the parking lot and raise their arms in welcome as he makes his way to the hill.
He drops his pack and reaches into his bag.
“Did you eat breakfast yet?” he asks. Before I can answer he pulls out a can of Steel Reserve (at 8.1 percent alcohol and about $1.20 a can it’s the beer of choice for street kids) and tosses it to me.
“There’s your breakfast. Eat up.”
Some of the crew make jokes about me being a snitch, or a narc, which alarms a young street kid called Ashtray.
“Whah? Who’s a snitch?” asks Ashtray, looking confused and worried as he gazes uphill at the yuppie with the reporter’s notebook.
With all eyes on me and the hefty can of malt liquor in my left hand, I pop the top and slam as much of it as I can in one shot before handing it off to Russia. I get smiles and approving nods and a few cheers go up as the group relaxes. Somebody throws a still-lit cigarette butt at Ashtray. He picks it up and smokes what’s left of it.
“This is what we do,” says Pokey as he takes a seat on the hill next to me. “Now this is what you do.”
“Pitch! Pitch!” Pokey cries, raising a rolled-up bill in his left hand. Everyone digs into their pockets, pulls out whatever change they have on them, and hands it to Pokey.
“Are you racking pennies?” Kurt asks.
“Jesus. You keep pennies? No, we’re not racking pennies. I throw them out,” Pokey says incredulously.
Kurt hands him a sandwich bag full of change and trinkets and tells Pokey to leave the pennies for him.
“We gotta get some beer so we can all stop shaking,” explains Pokey, a 20-year-old street kid from Georgia who has assumed a sort of leadership role in this ragtag band. “But don’t worry,” he says to me. “We’ll buy you all the beer you need.”
About five bucks will buy the next round of 22-ounce cans for the still growing crowd.
“Somebody got a hat?” Pokey asks.
Kurt removes his metal-studded felt cap and hands it to him. Pokey dumps the bills and assorted change into it and resumes counting.
Meanwhile, 211 appears with the latest copy of the Independent. Each Thursday he scours the calendar pages in search of upcoming concerts.
“We find out where the shows are and then we go work the shows,” he says. Tonight he’s hoping he can panhandle his way into the Sonic Youth concert over at the university. Concerts are great places to “spange,” as Pokey calls panhandling, because they’re full of people like me. Television advertisers crave the 18- to 49-year-old demographic because that’s where the money is. Street kids seek out that same demographic. They know they’re far more likely to get a few coins from a 30-something hipster waiting in line for the Sonic Youth concert than they are from a benevolent-looking grandma on the sidewalk.
(And unless you want a close-up of one of Pokey’s tattooed fists, don’t even think about hustling a mother with children: “They have mouths to feed besides themselves.”)
“Most people are pretty generous,” says Pokey. “But some people are total dicks. You tell me to get a job or some shit like that and I’ll spit in your shadow every time. Living out here is more of a job than most people would ever know.”
With that, Pokey dumps the money in his pocket and heads out to buy the next round of beers for his family of street kids. He returns minutes later with a few cans of Steel Reserve and a couple of silos of Mickey’s. He hands them out indiscriminately and the cans are passed around. Pokey spots an unmarked squad car as it rolls through the parking lot and barks out some indecipherable code word everyone else seems to understand and the cans disappear. Somebody asks for a cigarette and a pack of Bugle tobacco and rolling papers comes flying across the hill.
Ashtray admires Kurt’s Gerber pocketknife, a sinister looking 4-inch serrated folding knife with a belt clip, and Kurt offers to trade it for Ashtray’s Irish tweed hat and a much cheaper blade. It’s a great deal for Ashtray and he snaps it up.
“If you die, can I have your dog?” Ashtray asks somebody else.
Then someone strolls up and helps himself to a ham and Doritos sandwich.
“Johmb,” says Kurt, and the street kid, mouth full of Doritos and ham, nods a thanks to the preacher.
“Feed your belly,” says Johmb in that Creole accent I’m starting to think is a bit theatric.
“You notice how nobody here never says no to one another,” Johmb says to me. “That’s very important. Out here we’re all family. I may not have much, but I’d give you the shirt off my back if you needed it, and so would any of these other guys. We stick together and we help each other out whenever we can. That’s the way it works out here.”
By 6 p.m. the group has come back from an afternoon of spanging and they’ve left their post on the hill in Caras Park. They’ve migrated to the riprap under the north side of the Higgins Avenue bridge where they’re finishing off a 12-pack of St. Pauli Girl. Behind them, throngs of people are eating ribs from Knuckleheads BBQ, drinking craft beers at $3 a pop, kids are sucking down obscenely huge cups of shaved ice confections and everyone is listening to blues rock performed on a live stage. It’s a typical summer Thursday night in downtown Missoula.
“We usually disappear for a few hours and come down here so the locals can have the park to themselves,” Kurt says.
When the Downtown Tonight crowds start to dwindle, the street kids will peruse garbage cans and dumpsters and fill somebody else’s paper plate with somebody’s else’s leftover ribs, somebody else’s half-eaten burrito, and if they’re lucky, somebody else’s half-finished beer.
Then some of them will go panhandle outside a concert or bar. A few will just call it a night and start looking for a place to sleep. Others might consider walking to the nearest onramp and trying to catch a ride to Helena, or Spokane.
I’ll leave them before it gets too dark, or they get too drunk. Whichever comes first. I’ll need a good night’s rest in a comfortable bed before a big day at the office.
And while most of these street kids say they choose to live like this, that they like sleeping under bridges, spending their days idling in the sun getting drunk, waiting for the seasons to change and then moving on, their eyes defy them. Most don’t have families, either because they’ve abandoned, or have been abandoned by, their kin. Some never knew their families. And others just simply aren’t equipped to cope with the day-to-day drudgeries of responsible living, so they chase 22-ounce cans of cheap beer around the country.
Missoula, with its mild climate and generous citizenry, provides relative abundance this time of year, and so as the weather warms, the street people come into season. Sometimes they arrive by rail, but mostly they hitchhike their way to the margins of town. Amble through Missoula’s downtown district on any given afternoon and you’ll spot small bands of these travelers panhandling on the sidewalks or pawing through dumpsters in the alleys, looking for food, beer or some random trinket to add to their stash to be bartered later.
They live among us, and yet they exist on a plane that rarely intersects with our neat and tidy lives. We occasionally flip them a quarter, a dollar, or—praise Jesus!—a $20 bill, and then move along, forgetting their faces by the time we get to the next crosswalk. Other times we pretend to not hear them, or we blurt out some tired cliché like “get a job.”
As it turns out, they have a job.
They just don’t have anyplace to go home to.