You may not be interested in panhandlers, but panhandlers are interested in you.
On the umpteenth sighting of the same bearded Arlington man at his station on the median at North Sycamore Street and Washington Boulevard, I finally let my curiosity take control. I whipped out a handy $6 (though checkbook journalism is frowned upon) and asked the streetside solicitor for an audience.
Like a quarter-million others in the naked county, Glen has a story.
Standing mere inches from cars stopped at the traffic lights, he holds up a shifting selection of signs bearing such messages as “Bet you can’t hit me with a quarter.”
“If you think I don’t work, look at my hands,” he exclaims as he holds up his calluses. “That’s what I say when people tell me to get a job.” His only alternative, flipping hamburgers, he doubts would be successful.
Some onlookers doubt that Glen is deserving, and recent Arlington blogposts have mocked some panhandlers for operating with expensive-looking signs made at Kinko’s.
Declining to give a last name, Glen is a roofer by trade. But decades of drug and alcohol abuse have left him at age 54 squatting on a slice of public property he takes pride in.
Standing in his jeans, flannel shirt and hoodie across from the East Falls Church Metro parking lot, he also picks up trash, cuts up branches and digs drains for the grass on the median strip. He once put out a fire before fire-fighters arrived, he says, and has caught three bicycle thieves.
After 17 years on the streets, “I know more people in Northern Virginia than you,” he says.
Glen attended McKinley Elementary and Swanson Middle School, but by the ninth grade he found himself at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Powhatan, Va. As a young adult, he hit rock bottom with his habit when he ruptured a femoral artery with a heroin needle. “I almost bled to death before they took me to the emergency room,” he said.
Since an arrest eight years ago, he has received regular treatment through Arlington programs, where he submits to a biweekly urine test. He’s used the Arlington Homeless Services Unit Residential Program Center as well as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Panhandling provides a return he claims is only $5 a day. Glen refuses to “reveal trade secrets” as to how, while enjoying music on earphones, he judges drivers’ openness to giving or the timing of stoplights for approaching cars. Police are concerned about safety—his and the drivers’, an officer told me.
“I know the area like the back of my hand,” he said. “The police call me a landmark.”
He also knows the blonde female artist who spare-changes on the same site, and the combat veteran who asks for money daily nearby at Fairfax Drive at Lee Highway on the ramp from I-66. Glen’s wife, with whom he lives nearby, has panhandled on the same territory but now has a job at Starbucks.
Glen jokes that he’d like to retire with a gold watch. He’d also like to deejay for 12-step organizations. He confides he has assembled a music collection with thousands of songs, along with computers and laser lighting equipment. “In the junkie’s kind of mind,” he says, “you will get what you want. But it will take time.”
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org