September 8, 2010

Zagat's Guide to NYC Bums*

(*This guide is not, in fact, related to Zagat.  Please don't sue me, Zagat.)

The streets of New York City can be a scary, dangerous, and confusing place for the uninformed.

The maze of tall buildings creates an insane wind tunnel effect, where things go from calm to Twister-level from one street to the next, exploding umbrellas, ruining carefully crafted hairdos, and threatening to sweep you away to Hades, or worse, Jersey.  I've seen anorexic women picked up by the wind and tossed along Madison Avenue as if they were, well, anorexic women.

Shifty street merchants patrol every corner, all too willing to exploit tourists' faith in American commerce's established system of bartering and trading by suckering them into buying Gootchie handbags, Samsenyte suitcases, and other cheap, knockoff brand wares.

And potentially lurking on any street corner is a cab of the Cash Cab persuasion that's just aching to humiliate you on national TV for not knowing the actor's name who played Mr. Belding on Saved By the Bell.  (It's Dennis Haskins, by the way.)

More than anything, though, it's our only-in-NYC wildlife that can throw people off a bit.  And I'm not talking about our pigeons or steroid-abusing sewer rats.  I'm talking about our world-renowned bums.

Now, before anyone goes all Sally Struthers on me and starts to chastise me for using poor, innocent people as fodder for cheap jokes, let me say a few things:  First, "cheap jokes"?  How dare you.  Second, for those homeless who wound up in their current state through no fault of their own, I have nothing but empathy and compassion and, if it's available, a few bucks for a hot meal (more on that later).  Third, the point of this blog is to make people laugh, and that's what I'm doing, and (most of) the examples listed in this post are of the extreme variety.  And potential visitors to my fair city need to be educated about them, because after enough time, they just don't register to us here.

It's kind of ridiculous, actually, how indifferent we are here to the fact that there are other human beings lying in the sidewalk as we walk past on our way to the gym or to work or on our third run of the day to the awesome Chinese place that loads you up with extra meat in your sesame chicken.  It could be just one of those instances where the mind pushes things to the background after enough repetition.  Or it could be that Dave Chappelle was right:

Indifference aside, consider this an invaluable addition to your pre-visit education, potential NYC tourist.  (Also, I promise that this is probably the last time I'll write a post about bums for a while, since this now makes two in the span of one month.  If I keep writing about bums so frequently, people will start to think I'm writing about the Mets.  Hiyo!)

So without further ado, I give you my expert guide for knowing your New York City bums:

The Unfortunates

Just to get this out of the way, since it's hard to ladle any jokes into this section, these are the folks that do pull on your heart strings.  Whether or not it was their fault that they wound up in the state they're in, you feel for them.  They endure the overbearing mugginess of our summers and the bone-chilling freeze of our winters, typically getting by on the day-to-day kindness of passersby.  They sit on our sidewalks, a sign detailing their situation propped up against their slumped figure and sometimes, if they really want to plumb the depths of your sympathy, a ridiculously sad-looking dog splayed out next to them.

The problem is, there are just too many of these people.  There's no way to keep handing out change to every single one you pass without putting yourself in the poorhouse and winding up right next to them.  There's an odd occurrence that happens in New York, almost like any job market elsewhere, where the bum who really wants to rake in some cash has to do something to stand out.  That's where the next category comes in...

The Hidden Creative Geniuses

Also known as the Good Will Bummings.  These folks understand an all too true, albeit unfair, reality in the mart of being homeless in New York:  they have a lot of competition in this business.  Like I said before, if it was as simple as, "Proclaim my unfortunate circumstance and get help from every passerby," then there would be nothing to worry about.  It wouldn't be a comfortable life, but at least there'd be funds rolling in daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and brunch on good days).

But that's just not the case.  For bums living in a city full of people who just don't see them, you've got to do something to stand out.  This is where creativity becomes their greatest weapon.  Well, that and a shiv made out of a jagged piece of fencing wrapped in duct tape, or a sharp piece of broken grocery cart handle, or something just as good.

I work in a "creative field," where you have to keep a similar frame of mind. (Minus the shiv part.  Usually.)  So I certainly appreciate solid creativity in sidewalk presentations.   I once saw a guy sitting against one of NYU's buildings near Union Square holding a stick, which had a string tied to the end, and had a cup tied to the other end of the string.  The guy was literally fishing for change.  He even put a little showmanship into it.  When people would walk by, he'd make a sound like a fishing line being thrown out, and reel in his cup, saying, "Here, fishy fishy fishy fishy fishy..."   I loved it, and gave the guy $5 on the spot.

The Doomsayers

Everyone loves a good old fashioned proclamation of our impending doom. Gets the blood pumping, makes you take stock of the moral readiness of your mortal soul, forces you to decide what shows you should really get to on your DVR...

But sometimes it can be hard to keep all that at the forefront of your mind.  After all, how's a person supposed to remember to worry about the imminent apocalypse that a vengeful God is aching to bring upon his unsuspecting flock when we're down to the last three contestants on Idol?  That's where the Doomsayers come in.

A Doomsayer makes sure you know all of this by screaming in your face on street corners and subway cars, and if they really want to drive the point home, will accessorize with a snazzy sign featuring their fire-and-brimstone proclamation scrawled on the back of a hunk of cardboard.

Although they've had a rough go of it lately, as their once untouchable "crazy with a sign" top-dog status has been challenged by the Tea Party people.

The Balls-Out Crazies

This is one of my favorite Far Side cartoons:

That guy, wearing a trench coat and inflatable pool ring carrying a bazooka with a shoe on his head?  He is very much real.  Well, maybe not the bazooka part.  But swap that bazooka out for an umbrella with no top or a baby doll with old kielbasa stuck on where the arms and legs used to be, and you've got what's known as a Balls-Out Crazy.

The Balls-Out Crazy represents that line where a bum goes from being a harmless, lovable tramp to someone who might want to turn your skin into a suit.  The key to this unpredictability is the fact that many homeless people simply have nothing to lose; the threat of imprisonment that keeps everyday members of society in line doesn't really hold water for someone who would welcome the thought of three square meals a day and a roof overhead (and could ignore the whole "daily threat of being shanked and/or raped" thing).

If you find yourself coming across one of these fine, upstanding members of society, approach the situation like the guy who played Newman should have approached that crazy frilly-necked, acid-spitting dinosaur in Jurassic Park (okay, it's called a dilophosaurus; I knew that but didn't want to seem that geeky):  DON'T APPROACH.  Have you ever heard someone say, "Man, I really should've shoved my hand into that blazing-hot blast furnace, just in case it actually felt good or there was an Outback Steakhouse gift card inside"?  This is the same thing!  There's a reason streets have two sides; if you see a Balls-Out Crazy on one side, you cross over to the other.  If you see a Balls-Out Crazy on each side, you probably didn't want to go down that street anyway.

The Performance Artists

Ever been walking down the street thinking to yourself, "Man, if I could only see someone dressed as a woodland elf, replete with accurate costume and props, standing completely still and ignoring everything going on around them, I'd definitely give them a few bucks"?  How 'bout a human statue, or a guy who feels that standing in front of the NY Stock Exchange and flipping it off for 36 straight hours is really making an effective statement?  If so, then you're in luck, because in the vast cultural savanna of NYC, you're never too far from a Performance Artist.

Their inclusion on this list is dubious at best, since it's often nearly impossible to tell the difference between a bum and a truly dedicated Performance Artist.  Especially if they're not just some rich kid doing an art project, but someone who really views being creepy on a street corner as something to dedicate a life to.  With these folks, it's hard to tell if it's actually an art project, or if someone's well on their way to being a Balls-Out Crazy.  It's 50-50.

Only someone with the proper training can spot the determining factors with the naked eye.  Are the faerie's wings applied carefully, with all seams and glue hidden from view and definitely not just accidentally stuck on after laying on them in a dumpster?  Performance Artist.  Is the "bronze paint" on the human statue really just aged grime that's been buffed to a disgusting sheen over time, or is the human statue not standing still but actually passed out standing up?  Bum.

The Mascots

Like their Performance Artist brethren, these guys aren't necessarily bums, per se, but it's definitely a fine line.   And I'm sure some of the more enterprising bums out there have caught on to this as a way of not only making a few bucks here and there, but also of tricking hapless tourists into actually giving them some human, personal contact.

Mascots are most prominently found parked on street corners in the slow-moving ocean of upturned tourist faces that is Times Square.  In a place where literally everything is a photo op, someone dressed up as Spiderman or Dora the Explorer or Spongebob Squarepants is a god amongst men.

Sure, it gets a little weird when you come across the seventh Cookie Monster in five blocks.  And yeah, it's sort of odd that Winnie the Pooh is holding a bag with the word "Tips" scrawled on it.  (Wouldn't a honey jar be more appropriate?)  And absolutely, it's unsettling to hear the Kool-Aid Man swear that much.  ...  You know what?  Maybe the Mascots are just a bit too unsettling.

The Hipsters

Hipsters aren't bums, but they definitely warrant mentioning in this guide, mainly because even with a trained eye, it's essentially impossible to tell the difference between the two groups.  The only difference is intent, with bums wearing outdated, dingy-looking clothes because they're forced to do so, while Hipsters do so because they consider it trendy.  One group is comprised of cultural outsiders who project abject poverty, having to be seen in public looking unwashed and probably smelling bad; the other are homeless people.

But again, there are certain traits to look for to recognize the difference between a bum and a Hipster.  Is the disheveled figure before you...
  • Drinking PBR in a can?  Hipster.  Drinking out of an old Chinese food container full of collected rainwater?  Bum.
  • Wearing skinny jeans so tight that you can disturbingly tell that, yes, that androgynous figure is indeed a man?  Hipster.  Wearing no pants at all but strangely at peace with that fact?  Bum.
  • Smoking a cigarette that's imported or hand-rolled?  Hipster.  Smoking part of a crushed cigarette butt that was on the ground five seconds prior?  Bum.  
  • Sporting a moustache that was last popular sometime during the Hoover administration?  Hipster.  Sporting a gangrenous toe that should really be surgically amputated but hasn't because of no money for band-aids, let alone health insurance?  Bum.
  • Wearing a way-too-filthy-to-be-called-"vintage" t-shirt that's not even ironic, but rather, just sad and old looking?  Toss-up.  But probably Hipster if you're in Brooklyn at the time.
  • Holding an iPad, or other piece of expensive technology that clashes with their hatred of corporatism and mainstream faves?  Hipster.  Holding their junk while screaming at a trash can?  Bum.  (And potential Balls-Out Crazy.) 
  • Wearing plastic, neon sunglasses that you once won at a state fair when you were seven?  Hipster.  Wearing a pained and puzzled expression when told to "get a job, you stinkin' bum"?  Bum.  (Probably.)

The Ninjas

Most of you aren't aware, but a war is approaching; a great battle that will pit mankind against its most secretive and deadly enemy: harmless, inanimate objects on the street.  Those of us going about our daily business, assuming that all is well in the world, are sheep awaiting our inevitable slaughter without even knowing it.  But thankfully, we do have an army of protectors who are preparing every day to defend our very lives: the Ninja bums.

I first became aware of this noble race of warriors back home in Ohio, when my friends and I would always see someone who we referred to as "Kung-Fu Bum."  This soldier of misfortune spent his days walking through the streets of downtown Toledo, karate-chopping the shit out of every tree in sight.  Back then, we thought it was hilarious, but now I know better; he was just readying himself for his sacred duty.

In New York, they're just as prevalent, and even more highly trained because of the higher volume of things to punch and Crane Kick.  You may be tempted to confuse them for a Balls-Out Crazy, but again, the key is intent.  Look into this bum's eyes (assuming he still has both of them).  Is there an emptiness in them that's only found in Hulk Hogan at the end of a fight when he Hulks out and can't be hurt no matter how hard he's punched before body-slamming the poor sap he's fighting and leg-dropping him to hell?  Or is there an inner peace; a fount of dedication and perseverance to keeping his fellow man safe?  If it's the latter, you know it's a Ninja bum.  Thank him.  Just don't get between him and that parking meter.

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