Reprinted from July 1998
By now someone has written about just about everyone connected with the jewelry business but no one has written about the subculture, which occupies the alley in the back of my store. Some years ago I noticed we were being graced by a local bum who took up an uninvited residence in the alley. Time went by and he didn’t beg or borrow nor did he cause any apparent ripples. Other than being very unkempt no one would know he was around.
In fact, our episodes of graffiti dropped to zero. I can see why no one wanted to paint on the side of our building – which is a perfect sign board – they would have to deal with the resident bum who considered anything outside his affair. Besides this I noticed he looked fearsome with a full head and face bush. Two eyes peered out from under this. I was talking about him one day to a customer and they asked what nationality he was. I had to admit I couldn’t see enough of him to really make a judgment. It didn’t matter. He appeared to be about 40 years old. I think he chose our meager shopping center to grace because we have an adult beverage store in the center. I would see him dutifully making his way every morning at 9 am and every evening at 6 pm to the store and returning with a little brown paper bag.
One Saturday evening as I was leaving and I saw Thompson as I’d learned to call him, pushing his grocery store basket with a cop following behind him in his car making sure he moved on. I paused to ask the cop what the problem was and he explained that Thompson had tripped the electrical circuit lever of the pizza restaurant in the center thereby shutting down the business while they ran to diagnose the trouble. I found this impossible to believe because Thompson had never caused any ripples with the merchants in the center and was very low key, even if he was not ambitious.
Thompson was pushing his cart piled high with his treasures bitterly protesting and the cop was following in his squad car. I fell in line with my better than average top of the line later model car and we spilled onto the well-traveled main street which passes our store. People gawked. I took out a business card and wrote on it that Thompson could sit on our back steps if he didn’t cause any problems. All my protests to the cop fell on deaf ears because he had a complaint and he was out to take care of business.
I finally managed to stop the car and hand the treasured business card to Thompson who profusely thanked me. I assured the cop this bum had been circulating in the center for about four months and he did not cause any problems nor did he make waves. I went on home and Thompson returned to his seemingly rightful place behind the building in a small alcove where he apparently lived.
The next week it came to light an employee of the pizza place who’d been fired, went out back and threw the switch. When I went out back for some purpose at the dumpster I noticed someone had swept the alley and picked up the trash. Later in speaking with the other merchants I found all of them in agreement this bum didn’t cause problems and they didn’t mind his presence as long as he did not sit in front of the stores or approach customers.
I never have been sure how Thompson lives but every first of the month he seems to have a new supply of the necessities of life. Once someone threw away my Wall Street Journal and I was outside hanging in the dumpster and Thompson approached at a safe distance asking me what I was doing. I explained I was trying to salvage my Wall Street Journal someone had pitched out. He hastened to his precious grocery cart and brought back another copy explaining I could have his, he’d already read it.
From then on I noticed he would sit on the sunny side of the alley perched on a stool and read all day. No matter what time one looked out the back door, up to the alley where it makes a bend, there was Thompson sitting with his papers and reading.
There was a social interaction too. From time to time other bums have passed through the alley and Thompson had to urge them on if they stayed longer than a few hours. After all he had a card better than any bank passbook or green card, he had a card saying he had the right to remain in the alley behind the stores.
When winter came I was sure the very cold temperatures we sometimes experience would send him to the homeless shelter. Not so, when the temperature dropped to 10 below on a rare occasion I went out back personally and tried to reason with him. By now an older man and a dog had been staying there for a few days. They all refused to go to the shelter and they assured me they’d be fine. They built a fire in a tiny broiler affair and encompassed themselves with blankets in a group effort. I will admit that night I thought about the group and wondered how they’d fare.
The next morning all of us peeked out the back door expecting the worse but everyone was still there and the small fire was still going. Thompson had told me if the weather became wet he would likely seek shelter, but just cold weather, this was of no concern to him.
Right next to my office there is a speaker from a drive through at a Kentucky Fired Chicken next door. When Thompson would have any confrontation with another bum or whatever, I could hear it through the speaker. I found he was really a unique individual.
Other bums came and went. Thompson was mugged and robbed in the area once, but he stayed through the heat and storms and cold weather.
One day Thompson produced three old watches in need of repair. Chip hesitated. “Don’t worry,” Thompson said, “I have plenty of money.” And so he did when he came in front door and claimed his repair jobs. Who knows, maybe Thompson is another Howard Hughes!!
Thompson has been a resident bum now for almost four years. It is entirely possible he is financially better off than I am. One customer pointed out that maybe because he reads and invests by the Wall Street Journal he has to live like a bum. Hmmm…maybe he has a point!!!