A fictional story by Alex Grabtree


He loved the outdoors and hated to have a boss. He had tried the 9 to 5 routine with a boss, but never was able to survive for more than around three months. He always said bosses stifled his creativity.  After high school, the longest job that he was able to keep was five months as a parking attendant. He like being outside so he stuck with it longer than usual.


                Jim had the gift of gab.  He stood 5’10’ tall; he was medium weight; and had a very relaxed attitude toward life. He had a soothing voice, and was quite charming to talk to.  He loved to talk to people.  He was fascinated by what people had to say.  This was a distraction to some of his employers who viewed him as a slacker.


                One day Jim just dropped out of society.  He began to panhandle on the streets of Cleveland.  He made enough money to be able to pay for a hotel every night, but could not save enough for an apartment.  The couple of apartments that he found the landlord would not rent to him because he listed his occupation as “Street Conversationalist.”  That is how he viewed his job- an Aristotle for the 1990’s.  He would engage people in conversation, and in exchange for that they would pay him.  It was a simple street transaction. 


                In fact, he got quite good at his job. He could make $80 per day, and he enjoyed his time conversing with the masses.  He only would work four days a week.  He would take off Sunday through Tuesday unless those days happened  to be a payday.  He developed a intimate relationship with a number of people on the street.  He called them “Walking Lonely.”  Jim said that they needed to see and talk to him more than most.  They were the people living in an unstable relationship with horrible job and basically a crappy life.  He went out of his way for the “Walking Lonely,” and was handsomely rewarded.


                He paid his $27.50 per night for the hotel and rented a locker for his valuables.  He ate at some of the better restraints in Cleveland, and traveled around the city refining his craft.  He would sometimes venture to more progressive suburbs, but he felt much more at home on the streets of Cleveland.  In the second year of his job, he even decided to pay taxes on his income. He figured that he was the only “street conversationalist” and he was proud of his occupation so why not give some back.


The one problem with his job was hate-filled comment, “Get a job.” This was an affront to his livelihood.  He could not stand when some small man of limited intelligence would walk by and utter those three nasty words.  He tolerated it at the beginning, but could not take it after a couple months.  One day a business man in a $1,000 suit hurried by him and uttered those disgusting words.  Jim heard these words as an attack, an assault on his life.  He caught up with the man and hit him right in the stomach with all the anger and hate he could muster.  The business man keeled over on the rain soaked sidewalk, desperately trying to catch his breath.


                The business man filed charges and Jim was arrested later that day and charged with assault.  He actually was back at his post by the afternoon of the next day.  He paid the bail and only spent a couple of hours in lock up.  In three weeks as he went to court, Jim showed no remorse for his “crime” and actually felt a lot better about his job after the assault.  He paid the fine and was only out a couple of hundred dollars.

                This went on for a couple of years with similar results.  Except that now every time someone said, “Get a job,” Jim would say, “What gives you the right to comment on my life?”  and punctuated that question with some physical contact.  He called it his attitude adjustment on the top of the head.  Otherwise he was a very pleasant person to be around.  It was his weak point.

                He was arrested two dozen times while another ten people slithered away without filing charges.  He was involved in nine to ten fights which also led to criminal charges.  A number of the people lost the desire to fight it out in court, and he was found no guilty on two occasions.  He tired of pleading no contest and decided to go to court on every charge.  By the twentieth time before the judge, he had grown quite skilled at his defense. The police kept a close eye on him, and That is how he viewed his job-an Aristotle for the 1990’s.  He would engage people in conversation, and in exchange for that they would pay him his business was down.  He was now barely able to make the hotel bill every night.  For a couple of weeks, he slept on the street to save money.


                Really, only the “walking lonely” were paying for his service.  He had developed a reputation and many people avoided him.  The police were regularly asking him to move along.  He really did not blame the men in blue.  He thought they were probably sick and tired of filling out the paperwork.  They also had little respect for his chosen occupation. Anyway, he decided to look for a more lucrative market so he moved to Columbus.


                The state capital started out as a gold mine.  It seemed that the pedestrians in Columbus had never met a well spoken panhandler.  There were more of the walking lonely to console, and the money was great.  He was sad to have left his regulars back in Cleveland, but Columbus was a place he could grow to love as a home.  His best customers were the politicians, so he would make a point of visiting the State House every few days.  It seemed that they were in need of some direct charity after slashing the human service budget or relegating children to another year of sub-standard educational opportunities.  They were quiet about their donations, but they gave 20s and even $40 or $50 during the holidays.


                The other thing that Columbus had a lot of was rednecks.  They did not venture downtown as much, but they were more prevalent than in Cleveland.  Rednecks instinctively say, “Get a job” when they see someone loitering on the street.  Rednecks also settle their problems without involving the law.  Jim was not a big man, but held his own in a fight.  He was forced into a fight at least every week.  Most of the time he lost.  He also was arrested with some regularity.  The Columbus police were not as tolerant as the Cleveland police and they would arrest him just for getting in their way.  They got him for jay walking, littering, open container (of Pepsi), and disturbing the peace.


                This was just one of the costs of doing business. He learned which cops to avoid, and he was able to stay in the black with his legal and living fees.  He like Columbus, and grew fond of the people he encountered.  Jim used to say that the people in Columbus were more depressed than those in Cleveland because Columbus didn’t have any professional sports teams to rally around and they weren’t ridiculed by an entire nation like Cleveland.  He saw his job as a cross between a bounty hunter and a priest-there was a great deal of danger but he was able to spiritually guide troubled souls.


                There was this one judge, Ms. Rebecca Sharp, who came down hard on Jim every time he appeared before her.  She gave him one month in the County Jail for disturbing the peace.  So he had to pay huge fines to get his time down.  She used to lecture him every time she saw him.  She saw his potential and his talent, and she thought that she was helping.  She was not persuaded by his legal arguments with regard to his attitude adjustment crimes.  She viewed Jim as symbolic of all that was wrong with society and in reality all that was wrong with her job and her life.  She was going to “reform” him at any cost.

                After his third appearance before Judge Sharp for a serious crime, she saw that Jim was slipping through her hands.  She was losing and her tight control of her corner of the universe was also slipping away.  This bright, young conversationalist who did not have a drinking problem could not stay out of trouble.  Judge Sharp decided to push the question on the fourth time she saw him for assault.


                Judge Sharp told Jim he had two choices: he could walk out of her court on that day and get a real job and a real apartment or he could go to Mansfield Correctional Institute for no less than twenty years.  She would release him with no fine and no jail if he agreed to quit his job as a street conversationalist and get an apartment.  She would let the police know that if he was caught loitering on the street he was come before her again and she would send him to Mansfield.  He agreed to her terms, and his gig was up.


                A number of the walking lonely had offered him jobs, and he hooked up with one of his oldest customers who gave him a job as a door to door salesman.  He was trained and his boss helped him secure an apartment on a bus line in a nice section of town.  He went door to door in elderly neighborhoods or he would call older people and set up appointments for, “a chance to a new lease on life.”  He sold whole life insurance offered only to members of the Good Faith Universal Church. Basically, you made a donation to the church of $50 every year and then you got the “right” to buy expensive insurance that would only pay off if you lived another 16.4 years.  The company figured a huge profit on most policies.


                Jim talked about the work of this church and how important God was in his life now that he was off of the streets.  He loved the part of the job that allowed him to talk to people.  He went back and visited Judge Sharp a couple of times to show her how she had turned him around.  She was so proud of her work.  She invited Jim to a couple of functions, and championed him as a rehabilitated habitual criminal.  She wrote a piece for the Columbus Bar Association magazine, and wrote, “Judges need to get involved in the lives of those who come before their bench, and even the hardest criminal like Jim can turn around their lives.”


                Jim took his own life last night.  He could not live with the dishonest world that he had made for himself.  He could not steal money from elderly people while pretending to be their friends.  He knew that he could not survive in prison for twenty years, and did not want to relocate again.  He loved being a “street conversationalist” in Columbus, but felt that society was not ready for his unique brand of philosophy.


                Jim left this note. “Dear Judge: Thanks for all your help. When I was on the streets, I knew who I was and I knew what I was suppose to do.  I was free, and I was helping people.  I vowed that if I ever become one of the walking lonely I would change my situation.  I just could not put up with snobby people telling me to ‘get a job,’ when I had one of the best jobs in the city. I’m sorry”            


Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland, Ohio