I almost walked past the panhandler.
No wait a minute. I did walk past him.
But then I came back.
There was something in his demeanor that was disarming, as nonthreatening as a monk.
Then I discovered he wasn't panhandling at all.
"Want to buy a book?" he asked.
Knowing a little bit myself about how difficult that business can be, I said, "What book?"
"A coupon book. Pays for itself.
"The proceeds help the homeless," he added.
I studied the man, looking up at me from his wheelchair, trying to figure out his angle, and it was as if he were reading my mind.
"I'm trying to give something back. I'm helping out the Homeless Coalition because of everything they've done for me."
He tapped the wheel of his motorized wheelchair.
"They bought me this. And they got me off the streets. I used to live on the streets. I don't do that anymore."
He told me his story. He used to own and operate his own truck, an 18-wheeler. But one day he was sweeping crumbs off the dashboard, lost his balance and fell backward out the open truck door. It is no small distance from the cab of an 18-wheeler to the ground, in more ways than one. When he hit the pavement he broke his back. Two surgeries later he wound up in a wheelchair but no further.
The big man flexed his forearms.
"Used to lift pianos and 100-pound sacks of pinto beans," he said. "With each hand."
Now he drives a two-wheeler and lifts coupon books.
"I could stand up and walk from here to the curb. But I couldn't feel my legs when I got there, and I couldn't walk back."
He was married, but his wife, now his ex-wife, ran off when he couldn't work anymore. She hadn't paid his workman's comp payments from the money he sent home from the road, so he bid her good riddance.
"You never know what's going to happen to you," he said, shifting his gaze to the construction site across Main Street. "You could walk over there right now and have a brick fall on your head."
He said he threw one heck of a pity party for himself for a few years. But one day he woke up and realized it was nobody's fault. He went from begging on street corners to getting back in the system. The Homeless Coalition got him temporary lodgings at the Road Home, then the permanent apartment, then the wheelchair.
He gets a $705 government check each month for disability. His rent is $162. The rest he stretches to live on.
"I could sit at home and mope all day," he said. "Or I could come out here and try to help."
He picks up a few copies of Entertainment Happenings '09 from the Road Home each day and sits on street corners and sells them. They cost $20 and he can keep $5 as his commission. But he doesn't. He takes the full $20 back. He is the ultimate low overhead.
"I used to sit on this very corner and panhandle," he said. "This is better."It's a privilege to help somebody else. This is something I can do to feel like a man."
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.