Living on the streets of Minneapolis for a week

More than 9,000 Minnesotans are homeless. I decided to join them.

It was about this time that I began to discern a sharp divide between my pay-for-stay roommates. Put simply, there were those who were homeless more or less by choice and those who were homeless by circumstance.

Members of the former group generally regard normal people the same way normal people regard circus animals—they eat well and sleep safe, sure, but is parading around with a unicycle up your ass really worth the peace of mind?

There was a Zen-like old man known to all as "Cowboy" who fit this description. He was always reading and had a library of books stashed under his mattress. Every so often, someone would approach Cowboy to borrow or return a book, or to ask for his sage advice. Despite being a dusty old cracker with a honky-tonk nickname, he appeared to be a favorite among the black guys.

Nick Vlcek
Nick Vlcek

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But these alleged free spirits were rarities; the majority of my roommates were creatures of circumstance. The youngest of these unfortunates—those under 30, say—carried with them a burdensome chip on their shoulder that, to be honest, rendered them off-puttingly irascible. They were fully prepared to quarrel like injured badgers at any moment to protect what little they had, which is to say their pride.

Case in point: After much commotion and yelling outside the window, two young guys emerged from the elevator. One, a blond kid with an out-of-place clean-shaven look, was livid at a perceived injustice that befell him on the street below not 10 minutes earlier.

"Fuck that, I don't play that shit," he growled. "I'm Army-trained. Y'talk to me like that and I'll put you to the ground like that. Fuck that motherfucker. I'm trained to kill!"

"Let's be real, though, dog," scolded his partner from across the room. "You didn't have that attitude when you was down there. I seen you."

Blondie remained adamant that "in a one-and-one situation," he was virtually invincible, a fact he repeated over and over. Finally, he piped down and, within 15 minutes, began snoring like a sedated 73-year-old in a heated Lay-Z-Boy, his weary mind no doubt soothed in the knowledge that his machismo had been convincingly asserted.

Day Four

By the fourth day, the insufficient sleep sessions were beginning to take their toll on my stamina. I had been wandering the city like a baffled ghost, the incessantly dreary weather compounding my fatigue. As I stepped out of the shelter, it became clear that I had some serious catching up to do in the REM department.

Fortunately, it was Sunday.

I lurched southeast down Hennepin toward the iconic St. Mary's Basilica. It seemed as good a place to snooze as any. Also: free bread and wine.

Stepping inside the cavernous confines, I set up shop in a corner in the very last row. By this time, my haggardness had reached a point where I looked the part of a down-and-out "bum," if you will excuse the pejorative. I gathered this fact not from a glance into a mirror, but from the mouth-agape expression of a child peering over his mother's shoulder. Feeling like a monster, I avoided his stare.

Mass began. As the white-haired priest drooled like a vampire over bodies, blood, and life everlasting, I leaned forward and rested my forearm on the backrest of the pew in front of me, lay my head on my coat-cushioned arm, and drifted into blissful slumber. So tired was I that I slept through Holy Communion. Which is probably for the better, karma-wise.

Then it was back to downtown. The time had come to swallow my pride (a terrific chaser for shitty rum, incidentally) and panhandle. Yes, indeed. I would manhandle this panhandle business.

After buying a Sharpie—a brutal $1.10 setback—and purloining an empty Pizza Hut Tuscany pasta box, I was ready. But staring at the grease-stained cardboard, I was overcome with a crippling case of writer's block. "Spare change, please." No. Too dull and demanding. "Will work for food." Too unoriginal. "Why lie? Need a beer." Unoriginal and obnoxious. Besides, I still had plenty of rum left.

I decided to avoid being too cute, and just keep it simple and honest: "Hungry. Appreciative of anything." I paused and examined my handiwork. Something was missing. It needed a kicker. Feeling like somewhat of a phony given how I'd spent that morning, I sheepishly scribbled "God Bless" for a tagline.

There. It was settled. How could you not give me money? Soon I'd be backstroking through coinage like a rum-drunk Scrooge McDuck.

I set up shop on Eighth Street and Nicollet Mall just outside Macy's. The cardboard had some folds and flaps on it, so I was able to prop it up, hands-free. I set a Starbucks paper cup next to it, leaned back against the building, and did my best to look gracious and nonthreatening.

Seventy-six people strode past before a stout woman in her 40s hesitated before me, dug in her pocket, and tucked a folded one-dollar bill into my cup. I was so surprised by the donation, I almost jumped to my feet and hugged the poor woman. She seemed a little startled at my enthusiasm and, seeing this, I relented.

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