No fear of flying
Occasionally, like my allergic reactions to ragweed, Tulsa runs in circles of alarm about panhandlers.
If Matthew were a character in a Charles Dickens’ novel, he wouldn’t be the Artful Dodger, he would be the Artful Flier.
Matthew, 24, is not in a novel; he is a panhandler in Tulsa. “Fly” is street talk for panhandling.
“I don’t fly signs,” he says. “I use my hat.” His hat is a colorful baseball cap his girlfriend gave him. He wears it sideways.
In return for a donation — some would call it a handout — he offers candy bars, which he buys wholesale, or a friendship bracelet he made himself.
His personal record is flying 400 candy bars in one day. He didn’t do it for himself; he did it to help a homeless woman with four children get into a hotel for a month.
Usually he flies for much smaller amounts: $25, perhaps, to get some money for his rent and for his fines. He is always flying to pay toward his fines. Matthew, who says he has been arrested 24 times, has accumulated $6,000 in fines.
Matthew talks with a street lingo, like someone out of a contemporary Damon Runyon story. “Blue shirts” are officers with the Tulsa Police Department. “Tan shirts” are with the Sheriff’s Office.
“Tan shirts don’t mess with (panhandlers) much,” he says. “They have more important stuff to do.”
Some of the blue shirts, however, are hard on fliers. Others are nicer, give him tips on where to find a day job or throw him some slack that day.
“I was on this corner and Officer (name withheld) drove up and said, ‘What are you flying today?’ and I said, ‘$15 to get a pizza, a pop and some cat food,’ and (the officer) said, ‘OK, but be gone when I come back by here in 30 minutes.’”
Matthew also works day jobs — construction work at $8 an hour, for example, or when a business needs a day laborer. When he’s lucky, he can make as much as $50 a day with temporary work.
“Get a job,” people yell at him sometimes when he’s flying. “With two felonies, where can I get a job?” he asks.
As within any culture, the fliers have a set of rules.
“Say seven of us want the same corner,” Matthew says. “So, we each get 30 minutes.”
Occasionally, like my allergic reactions to ragweed, Tulsa runs in circles of alarm about panhandlers. We may have more than one panhandler, but I’ve seen only one at a time: at my neighborhood post office, at a midtown service station, at an east Tulsa big box store and, of course, on access roads by the bypass. I have never seen Matthew flying his hat.
Who exactly is a panhandler? The synonym is beggar. Nobody likes aggressive panhandlers, but are beggars also the kids holding up car wash signs? Or firemen at intersections collecting donations in their boots?
I do know that not all panhandlers are homeless. Some are entrepreneurs. If you’re interested in getting into the business, you can check the Internet for tips about successful panhandling — best locations, best spiel, best signs. I saw the picture of an unkempt man holding a cardboard sign that said, “Need jet fuel for my Lear.”
In Los Angeles and New Orleans, panhandlers often wear such interesting costumes — Spider-Man or Mickey Mouse — that tourists have their photographs taken with them.
In Times Square, panhandlers with shaved heads and orange robes pretend to be Buddhist monks with begging bowls. This is mightily annoying to authentic Buddhist priests.
I feel sorry for us in Tulsa. We don’t have any bogus Buddhist priests, or street mimes in whiteface or even a guy painted gold and pretending to be the Golden Driller.
Matthew was 20 when he came to downtown Tulsa to live on the streets. The first night he slept in a parking garage and while he slept, someone stole his duffel bag of clothes.
“Even my hat,” he says. “I hunted for that hat for two months. Finally found it at an abandoned campsite.”
Then, Matthew began coming to Iron Gate’s soup kitchen to eat, where I met him, and going to the drop-in center at Youth Services of Tulsa. Now he is staying with friends, but he maintains a fierce loyalty to his street friends, or “streets.”
“I love my streets,” he says. “I’ll never leave them. They help me out. The streets are like my family.”