Street life during a recession

You see some interesting things when you're walking around the downtown area of a city headed into brutal economic times. There's definitely a different vibe downtown than there was even a year or two ago.

Rich people walk around more guardedly, making even less eye contact with street people than before. One of my favorite places to observe this in action is the IndyGo bus stops near Meridian and Ohio streets.

Since the major hubs of the public transportation system are located there, people are almost always milling around the shelters waiting for a bus. But it's also one of the main business districts of the city, so interaction between wealthy people and the less-well-off is inevitable. I've observed well-dressed office workers cross the street three times on their way to the Nations Bank or Chase Building just so they can avoid the people waiting for their buses.

Since I'm one of those poor people waiting for the bus, I naturally take the side of my fellow bus-riders, no matter how outrageous their statements or actions. You can tell bad economic times are ahead when the rich people get really, really nervous about talking to or even seeing poor people. Maybe they're afraid that poverty is a contagious disease. Maybe it is.

Another interesting thing to note about the street people downtown is that a majority, maybe as much as 90 percent, are chain-smokers. With cigarettes at $4 a pack, sustaining a nicotine addiction on starvation wages is more difficult than ever before, so people have to improvise a little bit.

One of the most effective ways to get free cigarettes downtown is for a female to approach a smoker in a coquettish fashion and sweetly request a smoke. When the person pulls out the pack, the woman will ask for an extra cigarette for her boyfriend, who's watching from a distance of a few dozen yards. It's easy for most men to tell a dude that you're smoking your last one, but much more difficult for even the most happily married of men to refuse an attractive young woman a square or two.

But there's still hope for the single men walking around downtown seeking a free cigarette, if they're willing to get really hardcore about it. There are three or four major office buildings downtown — I won't say which ones, because I don't want to ruin the fun for everyone — where there are huge, sand-filled ashtrays outside just brimming with half-smoked cigarettes. Since most office workers only get a few minutes for their smoke breaks, they stub them out in the ashtrays after only a few puffs. And, just as quickly as the workers fill up the ashtrays, street people come right behind them and scoop them up before the janitorial staff can get to them.

Very few things gross me out, but watching someone relight a cigarette just smoked by a stranger comes close. But I admire the ingenuity.

Most cigarettes smoked downtown get squashed into the sidewalk, ruining them for scavengers. The sand-filled ashtrays preserve the cigarettes perfectly. It's even eco-friendly, this form of recycling, unless the person who stubbed out the cigarette you're now smoking is carrying the TB virus or the flu bug around with them.

You can tell that bad economic times are headed our way just by the number of police surveillance cameras there are downtown. It doesn't seem to have any effect on crime, but at least we'll get video footage in the off-chance Osama bin Laden walks down Pennsylvania Street with a bomb strapped to his chest.

During rough times, the preferred price for any commodity is free. Few people have even a couple of bucks to spare. From my various observation posts downtown, I've noticed a larger-than-expected run on the newspaper kiosks downtown.

eople aren’t interested in The Star; it costs 50 cents and is blander than a slice of Wonder bread. People greedily snatch up all the free publications, though, such as the used-car magazines and Up DownTown and NUVO. The only publication people don't mind paying for is the Indianapolis Recorder, a good deal for 75 cents.

By Friday afternoon, all the free publications are gone, with the notable exception of Intake or or Failed $5 million Experiment or whatever The Star calls their free weekly these days. They sit stacked by the dozens in their boxes, yellowing in the winter sunlight while people both rich and poor eagerly read AutoTrader.

It's a good time to be alive and living in Central Indiana. Unless you're one of those rich office workers about to be downsized by their Republican bosses. Us poor people laugh. We can get everything we need for free. God bless America. 


Recommended for you