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Vagrants and Violence

viewing Boulder's street life

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 13, 2005.

On the sidewalk on the east side of the Post Office where I’ve received my mail for a quarter century - right across from my attorney’s office and therefore a place I pass a lot - there has been - and probably is now - a short, pudgy man lying on the sidewalk with a sign asking for handouts. He is surrounded by backpack and clothing, some plaid and some not, all very dark and dirty. He and it are all of a piece and blend. He reads a lot, and lets his sign make his plea. His remarkable inertia attracts only occasional attention. We’ve never spoken.

In years previous, there was a much thinner man, badly burned, who frequented the Post Office steps and would get mad if people, like myself, ignored him. He’d shake his cup and lift it in your direction, muttering under his breath. He had a colorful sign with a long tale of woe on it. I have no doubt it was true, but I don’t give handouts. I used to, but not any more. I’ve seen him recently, and he looks and moves a lot better, so maybe the money he obtained went to good use.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of Boulder’s street life. I lived and worked on the Mall from 1981 to 1994, I was in jail and half-way house for the next three years, and I lived in a boarding house on the Hill for most of the next five, bringing us to 2002. So I can speak with some muted authority on the subject of transients, vagrants, and violence on the streets of Boulder, specifically the Pearl St. Mall, acquired in those two decades. I was in jail with some of the same guys, and I lived in the same buildings.

I knew people at the boarding house who brought in lots of food and booze obtained by donations from standing on highway medians on 28th St. or the Baseline exit off of 36 from Denver. They had signs touting their veteran status, or used their children as props. Or their need for food. Signs just as convincing as the burn victim at the Post Office. They weren’t thin from deprivation. It’s hard to tell the victim from the predator.

Last weekend, a deli owner on the Mall tried to rescue someone in a wheelchair being attacked by a vagrant. (Boulder refers to them variously as vagrants, transients, street trash, bums, druggies.) Anyway, the owner got his leg broken in the process, and although the attacker is in jail and booked, the deli owner is still rather annoyed. There are always clumps of these young punks on the courthouse lawn in the Mall’s center, and I easily understand how they seem threatening even when they aren’t. After all, we know that kids who routinely torture animals are programmed for an adulthood of murder and predation. What about a crowd that would absorb this kid, only twenty and with a rap sheet already, who’d attack someone in a wheelchair?

One of the uncomfortable issues about Boulder street life is that our transients really are not; and another is a sneaking suspicion that much if not most of the actual violence is not from the alcoholic bums who did the more obnoxious panhandling but from the young, high school and college age who may even be part of Boulder’s establishment. With family that can afford lawyers. That’s one reason cops don’t really go after pot anymore.

A year or so ago, another businessman clocked an obnoxious vagrant punk, knocked him out cold, and became a Walking Tall hero of the Pearl St. Mall. Business people and shoppers aren’t happy about transients, who are claimed to scare away business. The actual extent of that fear – and who’s at fault for it - is unknown.

I was the cook at the jail during my stay there, and worked with many of the same people I sometimes still see panhandling on the Mall. The one thing that struck me is that many of them stole food they didn’t have to steal while in jail. They could have asked for it and received it in the kitchen since it would be tossed anyway. This spoke to either a lifetime of deprivation or anger or both, and the smirking satisfaction they wore after disappearing into a corner to chow down on food that they could eat anyway and didn’t have to steal was as bizarre to me as my incomprehension was to them. They were happy to play a pointless game they couldn’t lose to no end. Few of them struck me as violent types, although anyone under the right circumstances can be violent. If you’ve worked the doors at bars, and dealt with drunks a lot, you get to know the indicators, and most of these guys didn’t have them. Most.

Eight years ago, Susannah Chase was murdered just off the Pearl St. Mall’s east end. Beaten with an aluminum baseball bat, raped, and left to die in an alley. There hasn’t been a whole lot of progress on this murder, being Boulder, although I’ve read DNA testing years later suggested her assailant is part Hispanic and American Indian. That’s CSI in real life: fallible and pointlessly vague, like most of our social engineering and law enforcement in Boulder. This far, no further, is a sign the citizenry fears itself. And with reason.