Bill Chaitow owns a small business and is a freelance writer.
Hardly anyone knew his name. Each day, the old man would make his way to the same spot downtown in front of Kress’ department store with his aging dog. He would unfold his metal chair, sit down and begin to finger the keys and buttons on his ragged, worn accordion. The tunes were hardly recognizable and they were not played with zest. Often he would sing but his words were mouthed so low and indistinctly that passersby were barely able to recognize the song. Still, enough of them would feed coins into the upturned hat, which sat less than ten inches from the nose of his tired dog, that the performer returned to his “stage” five days a week for many years.
He was the kind of person a child remembers. His eyes were his most memorable feature: oversized, milky blue, each pointing its own direction in a vacuous stare. His heavy body would slightly sway as his music droned. Whether his act was called begging or entertaining was not important. The old man was a fixture downtown and no one would seek to remove him. He was doing what he could to earn a living. In his manner there was an acceptance of his condition, a sense of purpose to his life, and a contentment as he played and sang his way through each day.
There was another man downtown. Everyone knew him as Peanut Joe. Peanut Joe seemed to enjoy his work; he was busy seven days a week, often working into the night. He would wander downtown with his sweater never buttoned straight.
Peanut Joe may not have been fully in his mind because he would often walk out into the middle of a street from a corner as though he were going across. As he would get halfway across, he would abruptly turn around and head back. When he got close to the curb he would stop, stare at it, hop up onto the sidewalk, turn around and proceed to start across again. Often he would repeat this procedure three or four times before he would complete the trip across the street. People would stare at this ritual in amazement. He must have sold enough peanuts to make a living, though, because Peanut Joe was a vendor downtown for at least ten years.
Just a few miles away on a main road leading away from downtown there was an older couple who would sell newspapers each afternoon and evening on the same street corner. The man was energetic. He would stand out there proudly, always clean and neat, wearing his pith helmet and shout out the day’s headlines. Very businesslike, he would hustle a paper to any customer who beckoned. His wife was a shy person. She would sit on a crate and hold up a newspaper which mostly hid her kerchief-framed face. Never did she smile and it often looked as if she were peeking from behind the newspaper much as a nosy neighbor would snoop from behind a curtain at people passing by. Those two were a team and they must have sold many papers because they were a part of that street corner for quite a few years.
As a young person, I would often wonder about the purpose of these people. Each of them was easy to disregard. They could be considered by some as a nuisance, possibly even an eyesore. Now that I am grown, I realize that these people each served society and served well. They are not there anymore and there is no one to replace them. Because of their absence the city has lost a lot, the state has lost something, and our nation is diminished. Each of these citizens was in business doing what he or she could to provide entertainment or a service to the other citizens. They were a part of the rich fabric of this community. They were proud, productive people who demanded nothing. Each of them went into the workaday world and boldly competed. The old, blind entertainer knew that there were other forms of entertainment available but he also knew that he had his regulars who would come up, stop for a few moments to listen to his tunes and put the price they thought was fair in his upturned hat. Peanut Joe competed with many restaurants, snack stands, and street vendors in the downtown area. He, too, had his regulars who would make it a point to get their daily afternoon or evening snack from him. The old newspaper couple had their regulars also. They were there in good weather and bad. The Tribune could always be bought at their corner because they were dependable.
This was over twenty years ago and since those people have vanished, no one has come to take their place. There has to be a reason why. Oh, today there is the donut lady who sells from her neat little stand and there is the flower lady who has a tidy little stand. They are both chipper and as kind as they can be. There is the nice blind man with the snack stand in the courthouse. Comparing the economy then with the economy of today, the prices of today’s vendors seem much higher. Although today’s small vendors are true entrepreneurs, they do not demonstrate the gutsy, rugged spirit of their earlier counterparts. They are not the same ripe age as the vendors and the performer of long ago. Those old ones are gone. For them it must have been different. They just decided one day that they were going to be in business and the following day they were selling peanuts, newspapers, or playing soft melodies on the accordion. The vendors of today had to get a city or county license. They also had to get formal permission to set up a stand which had to meet certain visual and structural conditions. They have to pay rent. They have to meet many governmental standards. Those pioneers of ages past would never have withstood today’s requirements of governmental bureaucracy to freelance on the streets; they were just hoping to make a living doing what they could do.
Just as it is the government which keeps the able elderly and those of feeble mentality from earning a living as a viable part of the economy today, it is also the government which serves to look after them with Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, and Social Security. Many of these people are tucked away in nursing homes instead of their own homes, away from the public view as though they were a blight on society. They sit in the foyers, halls, and their rooms with one request made of their existence: Don’t be a bother. The checks from Uncle Sam roll in to pay for the care and the caretakers do only what is necessary to keep the old and the mentally feeble alive until the next check rolls in.
Something valuable has been lost in this new system. Those who used to serve well now vegetate. Their sense of worth and their contact with the community are gone. Those who used to be served by them are still contributing to the support of their would-be counterparts, but that contribution is now mandatory. As part of the work force, those performers and vendors paid their own way; now those who would have willingly taken their places serving the public on the streets selling and singing are relegated to the status of tax burdens receiving “entitlements.”
When one is free to serve others as he or she chooses and earn a living in the process, not only does that individual have great meaning in life but everyone is enriched. When that service disappears because of governmental restriction and regulation, everybody loses.