A tall, thin man with stringy blond hair shook a paper cup, rattling a few coins. He wore an oversized nylon windbreaker that once was white, and the creases in his pale face were highlighted by a faint accumulation of dirt from days without washing. “Spare some change?”
“Sorry,” I said. I didn’t have any in my pockets. Pan-handling must have been easier in the days before credit cards.
I turned to enter the store. “Hey!” he called out. “Hey, I like that!”
I turned. Yes, he was pointing to my chin. “Thanks!”
I used to be kind of scared of homeless people. They were foreign to me, and, growing up in suburbia, I associated them with a kind of rough urban grunginess that included muggers and pickpockets and people who smashed in your car windows – various kinds of people who were trying to get some tidbit of the relative wealth I enjoyed. The overlap in homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues added to my apprehension. I knew, growing up, that giving money to homeless folks was a complicated issue, because of the potential that they would spend it on drugs. I had seen homeless people (or people I perceived to be homeless – I conflated homelessness and panhandling and dirtiness) screaming and yelling at the sky, or, worse, at passersby. I saw homeless folks as irrational, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.
As I started to collect the beard stories, I started to notice patterns. Who responds and how, under what circumstances, and with what emotions.
Of all the people I see, talk to, interact with, or walk by on any given day, almost none of them have any visible reaction to my beard. Now and then, someone will ask a question or say something about it. But, out of the hundreds of people I might pass on a given day, typically none of them respond.
Far and away, the group that’s most likely to comment on my beard is homeless people – or people I perceive to be homeless, anyway. Today, for example, I probably walked by a few hundred people who live under roofs, and not one said anything about my beard. I walked by two men panhandling, and one of those two responded.
But, what surprised me more than the number of responses from homeless folks was the quality of those responses. Almost without exception, the responses from homeless folks are enthusiastically, sometimes jubilantly, positive and complimentary.
I don’t quite know why that is. D suggested that maybe it’s because they’re a group of people who are used to living outside of society’s rules and expectations, so they may have more fondness for other folks who are living outside the rules, including gender rules. I wonder if some of the mental health issues might be working in my favor – maybe folks who struggle with impulsivity and following standard codes of politeness are, in general, more apt to blurt out whatever’s on their mind, while others maintain good manners and “appropriate personal distance.”
I wonder what the homeless subculture might be like. I imagine that there’s some subculture there, forged by these groups of people who live and eat and sleep and beg together. I’ve heard of rules of etiquette and territory among those who work the freeway off-ramps. I imagine there are many details of the subculture that I don’t know, and I wonder if I’m seeing a little glimpse into this subculture through these responses to my beard. What is it about homeless subculture that makes folks so easygoing about talking about my beard? What makes them compliment me so enthusiastically?