Of No Fixed Address: The Panhandler's Playbook

02/09/2009 03:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Bible says, "A man don't work, don't eat." And God doesn't lie, you know. His word is true, will always be true. So that's true, you know? If you don't try to go out and sew good seeds, plant good seeds, what's gonna come up? You can't take anything out of a bank without depositing. So you gotta deposit. You gotta earn it, in other words. You know? Nothing'll just come out the sky and just drop in your lap.

--John, panhandling outside Walgreens pharmacy

This is the fifth in a series of excerpts from my oral history Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago. Read more about the project here.


Mark Antony dips his fingers into a small yellow pouch and pulls out a wad of thinly cut tobacco. He carefully distributes the shag along the crease of a rolling paper. In one fluid motion, he rolls up the cigarette and slides it across the tip of his tongue.

It is the middle of April. Mark and his friend Hank are standing on the corner of a quiet residential street, sharing a small plastic bottle of Dimitri Vodka. At $3.24 a flask--just a dollar fifty more than rubbing alcohol--Dimitri is a staple beverage on the streets.

Mark has been homeless for ten years. He has a long, scraggly blond beard, and two of his bottom teeth are missing. He is known among the local community of vagrants as "Flag Head."

MARK: I was working as a sign painter. Okay? This is my chosen profession. Other than panhandling. I did this for fifteen years. I had a kid working with me, and he left a gallon of paint remover--you know that brush-on gel?--he left it uncapped up there while I'm down with a ladder. A two-story building. I hit the can with the ladder. I ended up with first-degree chemical burns on my head. Fortunately, it didn't get in my eyes.

And I go to Illinois Masonic Hospital, and they were able to treat my shoulders, my neck. But I had hair down to my ass at the time, okay? And they told me, "Well you'll have to be treated as an inpatient because we got to do dah-dah-dah-dah-dah, 'cause of your hair. Who's your carrier?"

I'm like, "I don't have one."

"Oh, well, get outta here!" Half treated, okay? So I had, like, peeling skin underneath all that hair. It gets worse. Because I couldn't work after the accident, I lost my apartment. Then I found myself sleeping under a porch. I can't say exactly how it happened, but I ended up with critters in my head to go with the peeling scalp. Maybe the critters gravitated towards the sensitive skin.

HANK: So in other words, to hide the fact that he had his hair all matted--I'm gonna cut the story off, 'cause he gonna talk forever--he put a flag on his head.

MARK: A bandanna. And it was like a flag from an African-looking country. It had a lion on it. And somebody nicknamed me "Flag Head."

HANK: And he used to make money off the flag. He used to walk around with the flag on his head and make money.

MARK: I made money with the flag, I made money without the flag. It's all a matter of personality and approach.

There's like a certain, like, top thirty-three percent that ALWAYS walk around with money. And I happen to be one of them. I'm not bragging. The reason I have money on me at any point--okay?--I am what is called a Professional Panhandler. You have panhandlers, but I try to carry it to an art form.

Now everybody's got a different approach, okay? My approach--it sounds crazy--I'll walk up to somebody on the street and I'll be like, "Excuse me." And I'm always moving, so it looks like I have a destination. I'll walk up to somebody and I'll be like, "Excuse me, would you have, like, eighty-three cents I could use to hop a bus?"

The figure sticks in their head: "Eighty-three? That's an odd figure... Oooh! He must have a little money, he just needs a little. He just needs the balance." It's close to a dollar, okay? So, "Oh, here, have a buck!"

So I usually get paper money. Instead of, you know, change. So then everything I need, if I make a budget for the day, is based on a dollar, a dollar, a dollar, a dollar, a dollar. And I figure out how many victims I need, okay?

Now there's two approaches to this thing, too. This is based on psychology and body language.

Without skipping a beat, Mark slips into character. He rolls his shoulders back, puffs out his chest, and begins walking toward me.

Now if I walk up on a guy--okay?--the approach is something like, "Hey, dude--" A little gruff in the voice and a little contact here. (He pats my shoulder with the back of his hand). "Uh, you got like, what? Eighty-three cents I could use to hop a bus?"

Well the guy doesn't want to seem like he's afraid of me and bein' a wimp, so he says, "Oh, lemme look." Then he starts talkin' in a gruff voice too, you know? (He assumes the voice.) "Yeah here, have a buck." Sometimes they'll be like, "Yeah yeah here, have three. Go get yourself somethin' to drink, too."

But if it's a female--okay?--now the approach has got to be different. (Again, he walks toward me, this time with a casual, unhurried stride.) Walk up on a female, I'm like, "Excuse me, Miss. Would you have like eighty-three cents I could use to hop a bus?" Then a little gesticulating, you know? And I look like I'm really embarrassed--okay?--and roll my eyes up in there. (He gives a big smile.)

And, (in a woman's voice) "Oh, he's so cute!" You know? Like, "He wouldn't hurt me!"

So then a woman'll pull out her wallet. And it'll have hundreds of dollars in it! All I'm goin' for is that dollar. Okay? I don't care about five, six hundred bucks there in her purse. See, ninety-five percent of the battle, when it comes to panhandling, is disarming the person. Okay? You can disarm 'em, then yeah, you'll get what you want.

If I'm in the mood to raise money--okay?--I can do anywhere from like fifteen, twenty an hour. I can raise fifteen to twenty dollars an hour, okay? Just runnin' around the neighborhood. But I do that like after four o'clock, when people are getting' off work. I don't want to do it at this hour when there's hardly anyone on the street.

HANK: Or when it's rainin' or snowin'. That's one time you don't do it. Because nobody gonna--I mean, I wouldn't stop! If I had money, I would not stop either.

MARK: But at fifteen, twenty an hour, I could afford a party from Hell. And everyone would want to jump in on it.