By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Jesse Marx
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Tatiana Craine
By Judy Keen
The 280th passerby, a sharp-dressed lady in large-frame glasses, bestowed upon me three quarters, two dimes, and a penny. I kept my cool this time, and thanked her in subdued tones. Inexplicably, she actually apologized for being unable to spare more.
"I could've sworn I had more!" she said. "Well, wait a sec." She dug through her purse. Nothing. "Y'know, I'm just so, so sorry!"
Now I just felt like an asshole.
During the course of that butt-numbing hour, a total of 511 people marched past. Few dropped notice, let alone coin.
My last benefactor was passerby number 391.
"Would you like a soda, maybe?" A dark-haired woman walking with her husband extended a red can in my direction. I had evidently stumbled onto the set of an "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" commercial.
I thanked the couple, then scurried back inside the skyway to enjoy my prize. The carbonated syrup supplied a much-needed second wind.
"Sir, are you sleeping?"
"Huh? What? No, sir."
I was on the second floor of a downtown Barnes & Noble, perched in one of four reading chairs. Two seats to my left was a gangly fellow drifter, his full black beard winter-ready, enduring an awkward interrogation at the hands of a round-shouldered security guard.
"You're telling me you weren't sleeping?"
"Just reading, sir." He held up his paperback as evidence.
"All right," said the officer. "But if I catch you sleepin', you're outta here. Understand me?
It was that time of year. When the weather grows unbearable, those lacking daytime shelter take to the skyways and bookshops and libraries to wile away the day in warmth and literary distraction.
Proprietors, of course, are all too aware of this. Understandably, they take measures to reserve creature comforts for paying customers—or at least potential customers—hence the crackdown on us napping, penniless vagrants.
Not 20 minutes later, the oafish security guard returned to find his prey fully shut-eyed, the book unopened on his lap.
"All right, let's go," he said. "Come on. Up you go. What'd I tell ya?"
The dazed vagabond rose to his feet and uttered not a word of protest. He slinked downstairs, the officer trailing behind. The perfunctory manner in which this was carried out suggested this was something of a reoccurring episode.
In witnessing this, I learned a valuable lesson in the art of bookstore stealth snoozing. Put bluntly, the sleepy gentleman had erred in his choice of texts. His thick paperback—reckon it was Dune—was simply too unwieldy to keep open while unconscious. Whenever the book achieved shut-tight equilibrium, the security guard knew to pounce.
The secret, I discovered, is to select a book that can remain open of its own volition. Large, flat hardcovers—big on surface area, low on volume—are best suited to the task. Which is why, for the next three days, I would grow quite intimate with The World's Best Sailboats Vol. I by Ferenc Mate. With this beast on my lap and my stocking cap pulled over my eyes, I could doze with impunity. Moreover, I had done my homework. In the event of questioning, I was wholly prepared to school the security guard on the subtleties of Alden yachts and Baltic yachts, and explain the nuanced differences in style between Shannon Boat Co. and Sam L. Morse Co., and thus retain my peace—for whoever heard of an unwashed vagrant independently versed in yacht minutiae? ("Of course I'm reading, officer! Or at least I was until you interrupted me!") This little flight of cunning earned me hours of serene naptime.
Upon returning to the shelter, I was met with a damning sight. The previously solitary empty bed at the far end of the room had an occupant. This would be my last night under a roof.
Worse, tomorrow night's forecast called for snow.
The early-evening rush-hour traffic whooshed 30 feet below my frozen-to-the-marrow toes. I stood on a five-foot-wide median on Olson Memorial Highway just off Lyndale Avenue holding my sad little sign and my sad little cup.
As any driver who's ever been stuck at a red light mere feet from a beggar can attest, a subtle awkwardness lingers in the air like a pesky fart.
This awkwardness is, I now discovered, mutual. Standing there, you're on full display. You might as well be on stage. Chalk it up to self-consciousness or paranoia, but you can't help but think you're being sized up, that contained in each vehicle whizzing by is a value judgment on your life. The whirring tires seem to whisper, "Get a job."
Some passengers snuck sympathetic looks in my direction, which, in its own way, was more uncomfortable than the glances of disdain. The only thing that stings worse than contempt is pity.
Also: It's important to remain at least somewhat still. Many drivers will stare straight ahead and tightly grip the steering wheel as if you might, at any moment, sprint toward the car, dive through the windshield, and bite off half their face. Best not to fan those fears with herky-jerky spasms.