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First Person: Read All About It
What’s it like selling a newspaper about the homeless? I could tell you stories. By Jeffery McNeil
Comments () | Published October 15, 2010

I might not have a home, but I have a sense of humor.

I’m a vendor for Street Sense, a paper about poverty and Washington’s homeless community. Sometimes I seem to be the life of the party; at other times people walk by like I have a disease. I’ve learned the art of persuasion and can turn an objection into a yes. Most of all, I’ve collected stories.

When I began, I didn’t know about panhandlers’ territories. I was selling on L Street in downtown DC when a fellow with a cane and a limp started screaming, “Get the f--- out of here!” He resembled Oscar the Grouch. I ignored him. When a customer gave me a large donation, Oscar tried to get me to fight. I ducked and danced like Muhammad Ali. He was enraged because he couldn’t land a blow, so he reached into his pants and threw his fake leg at me. Now when I see him, I always yell, “How’s the leg?”

At Union Station, I spotted Greta Van Susteren, host of Fox News’s On the Record. She looked at me and said, “What do you have?” I gave her my greatest sales pitch but didn’t ask for her autograph. She resorted to a classic tactic: “I’ll see you on the way back.” She came back, smiled, and said she wasn’t interested.

I was at Connecticut and M when someone said former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan was coming down the street. As he passed, I said, “Good morning, sir. Have you read Street Sense?” For an old man he had quick feet, and he hurried by. When he came back, I told a little joke and he snubbed me again.

On my way to 17th and L, I stumbled on an elderly man crying, “Can you spare change? I have no food.” I bought him a couple of sandwiches and a soda at CVS. When I took them to him, he asked where the receipt was. I couldn’t believe his ungratefulness and decided to grab the bag and have lunch myself. As I walked away, he told the same story to another person, who gave him $20.

One of my favorite spots is near the Farragut North Metro station. It’s known as Corner Alley and has everyone from hot-dog vendors to panhandlers, lined up like grizzly bears for a salmon run. One day, an old lady with a stroller was screaming gibberish. She was wearing a lewd outfit and must have been in her early seventies. As I watched her, she began pushing her stroller toward me. I tried to give her the right of way when I realized she was headed directly at me. She made a move to run me over, then picked up her bag and started hitting me with it. It was embarrassing to get beaten up by an old lady. Even worse, she tried to put a hex on me.

Eastern Market has lots of vendors, so it can be cutthroat. I found a vacant area and started selling. I was doing well when an old man set up behind me and started playing the sax. I was irked that he had to be right behind me to play. And he played horribly.

Sometimes when there’s a lot of competition, you have to use Bill Gates–style tactics. I offered the guy $20 to never, ever play again.

This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/15/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles