Shortly after the collapse of the twin towers in 2001, I came across an enterprising individual, Billy McKinney, pitching for 21st century alms in Columbus Circle in New York City. He had taken a piece of cardboard, and rather than plead his dire condition, came up with a different approach to getting by.
Somewhat amused, I offered him $10, bought the sign, and eventually reprinted it as my holiday greeting for the year 2001.
Being a collector, once infected, you pursue the thread, and over the past eight years, I have been accumulating a number of other, similar, signs. Some are facetious, but most are sincere pleas for help. The signs were acquired across the United States — New York, Miami, Palm Beach, St. Louis, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Some of my friends in the bookselling community, learning of my quest, purchased signs on their own and sent them along. Robert Rulon-Miller sent a particularly interesting one, and took the time to catalogue it as a serious broadside (which, when you consider it, it is.)
A number of the sign holding individuals most certainly were cadging the quarters, like Billy, and, as a matter of fact, I saw several others with similar Tell Me Off signs, although I suspect Billy was the probably the first to come up with the idea, and if not the first, most certainly one of the earliest of the Tell Me Off crowd. Several were blatantly provocactive, hoping to get a response (money) by innovative texts of one type or the other.
I did engage with all the individuals I purchased signs from, and quite often, my offer of purchase was declined. I would guess at least two out of every five people on the street turned me down, and I was not able to purchase their signs. They were just unwilling to part with them. I think it was a matter of self dignity, and I was ever sensitive to their condition and never tried to further persuade them to sell.
A few were masterful actors. One in particular, a really beautiful young girl, was sitting on the ground at 7th Avenue and 54th Street in New York City, sobbing silently. The sign, which is included here, told the story of her being hit on the head and robbed of all her belongings, and needing bus fare to return home. I was that affected I not only gave her $10 and bought her sign, but, walking half a block further, returned and gave her an additional $50.
A week later, there she was. Same place. Virtually same sign. As I walked by, we did make eye contact, and she gave me a small, sly smile and looked down. What an acting career she is missing!
Yet, still, your reaction to a mendicant’s sign may be a fleeting moment of compassion, and you might assuage your shame by giving the person a few coins or dollars. However, the cumulative effect of looking at the signs assembled here is rather different. You don’t have the privilege of looking away, and you are forced to confront the uncomfortable fact: these are Hard Times. Hard Times, indeed.