When the ‘Homeless Godfather’ Gives You Change For a 5
“He just wants money for booze and drugs.” “She’s young, she could get a job.” “I’ve already given to my church.” “He seems too well dressed.” “She’s here every day, if she were serious why doesn’t she try somewhere new?”
For many of us, these thoughts happen almost daily as we see homeless people pan handling for money. We tend to think negatively of these people but I recently had an experience that caused me to take a step back and reconsider what I thought I knew about homeless people.
I was driving down a major road near my apartment and saw an intersection with men on all sides asking for money. Without thinking, I pulled off into a McDonalds parking lot and dared myself to get out of the car and talk to them. I have always been interested in hearing what drives a person to live on the street and I wanted to photograph them. Most people begin life with a home and some sort of family or institution to look after them. It seems that anyone who ends up on the street must have an elaborate story of how they managed to end up there, and stay there.
I sat in the car for a few moments as I overcame my perhaps justified fear, stepped out of my car and headed towards a man who was standing on the median with a sign. He was old, in his sixties or seventies, with long white hair, and had probably no more than fifteen teeth to his mouth. I motioned for him to come over and talk. He finished his line of cars and crossed the street to where I stood. I shook his hand and said hello. I was determined to get a photo of him so I simply asked, “can I take your photo?” He replied that he had been sick from eating bad food at a local fast food restaurant and didn’t look his best. Unfortunately my judgmental mind thought, “you’re homeless, I really don’t think being sick will change your appearance too much.” I saw that he had a dog tied to an electric meter next to his bag. I told him I was sorry that he had been sick. He began to walk away and I said, “hang on, let me give you something.” I pulled out a five dollar bill and handed it to him. After hours of receiving only spare change his face lit up. He smiled and said, “Wow! Thank you.” I turned to leave and he said, “you know what, go ahead and take a photo.” He stood and held his sign proudly, smiling as best he could after a long day of pestering drivers while suffering from food poisoning. He shook my hand again and went back to work.
As I headed back to the car I was confronted by another homeless man. He seemed better dressed and more attentive. He told me that the man I had just met was called Dogman. His street name was Nutter Butter. He had been a contractor at one point, had a wife and had been making over 100 K a year. He told me his wife left him and took everything. He skipped over what led to his divorce and to him managing a Pizza Hut. He said thats when he first met homeless people. He would give them left over pizzas every night. He became friends with the homeless and soon was out of work and on the street with them. “I still have my resume,” he told me. I didn’t bother asking why he didn’t use it to get a job. I got the idea that he was working with Dogman. He waved to him while we were talking. He owned an old truck which made him seem less than authentically homeless.
I asked if I could take his photo and he was hesitant but obliged. He was eager to teach me all that he had learned on the street. He told me that holding a sign and asking for money was called “flying.” He ironically told me to be careful about which homeless people I gave money to. He said, “you can tell when someone is ‘hot’ and you shouldn’t give to them.” He offered to teach me more about the street if I came back and even suggested I dress up in dirty clothes and spend a day with the homeless. “Tell them your parents kicked you out for smoking pot,” he said. I told him I’d think about it. All of this made it seem as though he may be running some sort of homeless mafia as a way to support himself, and he was the godfather. I gave him a five dollar bill as well and he was shocked. He said “I can’t take all of this, you gotta eat too.” He reached in his pocket and handed me back two dollars in change. Now I was stunned. Who would guess that a man who is out begging for money on the street would think about giving change back to a fairly well-off kid so that he could eat. I didn’t know what to say, but took my change.
While I still have serious doubts about the legitimacy of his homelessness I still can’t get out of my mind the generosity and thoughtfulness of Nutter Butter. Many stereotypes of homeless people were instantly erased from my mind. Here was a kind, polite and selfless man who generously returned a portion of what he had been given, out of concern for someone who was clearly in a much better place than he was. I think we can all learn a thing or two from my encounter with Nutter Butter. People on the streets are real people with stories and pasts that most of us will never begin to comprehend or understand. Whether we agree with their life choices or not, once in a while it wouldn’t hurt to get to know them and treat them like we would anyone else.
Originally published at www.hastyville.com.