Reading the Signs

If you find yourself stuck in northbound traffic on Fairfax, inching toward the Grove, you’ll come upon a series of colorfully lettered cardboard signs leaning against the trees lining the sidewalk. The first sign reads: “Please leave a small window of your soul open to see what the real meaning of life is . . . — Robert.” The second says: “The words ‘I love you’ are in deed wonderful & endearing, but the 3 most powerful words in the universe are, ‘Can I help?’ Love, Robert.” The third is a more formal introduction: “Hello my name is Robert. I am selling ice-cold water to get off the streets. Please help. 75¢. Thanks.” The fourth mixes message and sales pitch: “Homeless, but not hopeless. I am selling ice-cold water. 75¢ Money is needed to get off the streets. Please help, Thanks.”

Robert, dressed in an orange mesh vest, a yellow shirt and washed jeans, sits next to this last sign on the corner of Fairfax and Third. Under a knobby tree, he digs up bottles of water that are being iced down in the Igloo coolers by his side.

“I wash a few windows and a few cars, and I save the money, and my friend takes me down to the 99-cents store, and I buy the water, and I come here and sell it,” Robert tells me on a steamy Saturday. His place of business isn’t too far from his current address — an alley off Fairfax.

“I hate being homeless,” Robert says. “Nobody understands it till you get there. The worst thing about it is that other homeless people steal from you.”

Robert has had his bike stolen three times. But so far no one has managed to take away his signs, of which he is particularly proud. He’s not as proud of the general attitude of his fellow citizens toward the homeless. “They throw you out like you’re a piece of chewing gum. When the sugar’s all gone, they spit you out and throw you away.”

In a span of a few minutes, Robert has sold water to four grateful customers. As they walk away, he thanks each of them, and digs up fresh bottles to entice the dehydrated and weary.

“I’m not going to be a throwaway anymore,” Robert declares between sales. “All I want to do is be self-reliant again, back in the system again, so I can get a regular job, so I can be a regular person again, pay taxes. I don’t want to mooch off of everybody else; I don’t want welfare; I don’t want food stamps. I just wanna work.

“They got money to spend for war and all the negative things, but no money to spend for people. And it doesn’t make sense. Tell them that Robert said so. And tell them I’m angry. I’m angry as hell.”


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