Michael Zinman | Collections

Hard Times

Two signs from Michael Zinman's collection

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.

Comments [20]

these f***ing beggars are stinking up the city

Best beggar sign I ever saw read : "If I were rich, this would be a plasma screen."

mr. zinman,
you must see this movie: philanthropy (2002) or filantropica in original. it's about the signs you are collecting. "an extended hand that doesn't tell a story doesn't get any money"... genius!

Hey beggar types: The honest "Need cash for beer" signs were cute in like 1983. Stop it.

I have noticed that the beggars around Union Square create signs to one up each other. If there are only a few beggars out the signs are a simple “Please help, God bless” and maybe “Need travel money” if the beggar is young. But when a lot of them show up on the same day they try to get an edge, claiming a mix of wild circumstances, and by the end of the day I see guys with signs that read “Need help, disabled veteran, HIV+, Hepatitis, no family.” My personal favorite is a woman who rotates through different neighborhoods with “Tired of prostitution…” signs.

But I never forget the beggar in DC explained to me that I should never give money to a beggar who claims to need it for food, because there are dozens of food banks and shelters in every city where he could eat for free.
James Puckett

Don't give money to panhandlers. Feel the guilt? Pocket the $2 or whatever you were going to fork over and give it to your local shelters. Volunteer.

In cities, homeless people have plenty of opportunities to eat if they are willing to show up at say, meal time. Showers, clothes, laundry, canned food, medical, dental, and vision care also freely available if a person can manage crowds and keep appointments. Some people can't because of mental illness or low IQ, and we try to help them navigate available resources to insure their health and safety.

Giving money directly to panhandlers helps support addiction and/or merely prolongs homelessness. Buy a meal, give socks or gloves instead if you need to feel an immediate guilt-quencher.

I'm a social worker who spends my time trying to engage homeless people who are also mentally ill in mental health services. I also help clients get access to drug and alcohol rehabilitation services. There are many more like me across the country who have to facepalm every time a client tells us they finance their daily gallon of vodka with a well-crafted sign.

Addiction sucks. Be a part of a solution.
Rebekah Falkner

My father told me a story about an advertising man who passed a beggar in the street back in the 1970s. The beggar was having little luck collecting coins with a sign that read, "I AM BLIND. PLEASE SPARE ME SOME COINS".

The adman asked the beggar if he could adjust his sign and was told he could. Later that day he came back along the street to see how the beggar was doing and found that he had made quite a lot of money. The advertising guy had adjusted the sign to read, "I'M BLIND & IT'S A NICE DAY. PLEASE SPARE ME SOME COINS."
Ninian Carter

Most effective beggar sign I've seen was at the bottom of a freeway off-ramp near the stop light, so the cars had to stop when the light was red.

The beggar had a very nice looking medium size dog with a red bandana around his neck. The beggar's sign said:

"Need $ for dog food"

His success rate was such that he probably has franchised the concept by now.

More: http://pentagram.com/signs/
Michael Bierut

(A Story of a Sign) 2007

“With the stroke of a pen, a stranger on his way to an important meeting transforms the afternoon of a homeless man by teaching a lesson worth more than the value of a dollar.”

Daniel H. Pink also writes about Emotionally intelligent signage.
He posted a link to this film two years ago.
Carl W. Smith

That's an interesting collection. It'd be an interesting installation piece.
Michael Critz

Rebekah said:
"....Showers, clothes, laundry, canned food, medical, dental, and vision care also freely available ....
How about shelter for the night ?

Sign in Portland, Oregon:

Why Lie?
I need a burger and a beer.

But as an old song says,

For every story you hear that's a lie
There's a hundred hard and true.
I'll give my money again to the stranger--
Share the money as I pass through.

Kim Stafford

Mr. Butch was a legendary homeless guy in Boston, -also known as the Mayor of Kenmore Square.

When Kenmore Square was "sanitized" by Boston University and "the Rat" closed, Mr. Butch moved on to Allston.

He never needed a sign. He had his own brand of "charm"


Joanne Kaliontzis

Great article! For those interested in the art of the homeless sign, here is a link to a modified video of a piece that I included in my 2009 show called HOME? which included art using real homeless signs I’ve collected since 1993. Here is the link:

Willie Baronet

[...] Slideshow: Hard Times [...]


Have you ever seen somebody lick the chutney spoon in an Indian Restaurant and put it back ? Ths would never have happened under the Tories.

More on Zinman and his collections can be found here:

Jessica Helfand

reminds me of a Sherlock Holmes where an affluent family man left everyday for work as a begger. He had elaborate costume & make up.No one knew about him until Sherlock exposed him.Anyone know this story? you can find it on netflix.

always give something to beggars. it is a good example to children.
jessica jenkins

Jobs | January 22