You have to go to work early. That's what they call it, going to work.
Get there by 7 a.m. or some guy who says he's disabled, or some woman who claims she has kids, will steal your slice of sidewalk.
You want an interstate off ramp: lots of traffic, an overpass for shade. Or a busy intersection with a long stoplight.
And you need a sign: your life story summed up on a soggy square.
Better yet, make two signs, so you can be whatever you need to be.
"After a while, you learn what works," said Roderick Couch, 28. He was in a wheelchair outside a St. Petersburg Wal-Mart last week, clutching a sign that said, "Disabled." The word was in quotation marks, as if the writer were crossing his fingers. Couch limps but can walk 100 blocks of U.S. 19 in a day. He hasn't worked since he got out of jail.
His girlfriend, Jazmine Saldana, 24, held her own banner: Homeless. No quotation marks, but maybe there should have been. Since the couple started panhandling in November, they have had enough money to sleep in a motel all but one night.
"You have to know how to fly," Saldana said. That's what they call it, flying a sign.
Every day, from dawn to dusk, they're out there. From Seminole to St. Petersburg, Clearwater to Carrollwood, hundreds of panhandlers brandish their makeshift billboards across Tampa Bay. Their weathered faces and sad signs have become part of Florida's landscape.
There's the elderly African-American man who swears he fought in 'Nam. His hat reads "U.S. Air Force." His sign includes the Marine motto, "Semper fi."
There's the bearded white guy whose cardboard claims he was "layed off." And the young guy with the red goatee and "Anything helps" sign who hangs out by Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard Publix.
Every day, you see more.
Around Tampa's Hyde Park alone, panhandlers say they can count at least 200 of their kind. In St. Petersburg, off I-275, nine people compete for shifts at one intersection. Turf wars erupt. A 60-year-old man who uses a walker recently shoved a 49-year-old into the bushes. "He knew I owned that spot under the tree."
Maybe you feel sorry for them: Times are tough. It could be me.
Maybe they make you angry because they want handouts.
Homeless or not, desperate or not, they all have their strategies, each one forged in the blast oven of the streets.
"Panhandling isn't just a job. It's an art," said Cliff Stewart, 49, who has worked the I-275 22nd Avenue N exit in St. Petersburg since he got out of prison two years ago.
You have to know what moves people most: beer and God.
• • •
You have to learn the rules. What to do, what to avoid doing. You have to set quotas. And know the right words.
Police say: Stay on the sidewalk. Wait for people in the cars to call you over.
Panhandlers say: If someone else is waiting to fly a sign, you have to rotate out every half-hour. If you leave to get a drink, you forfeit your shift.
Try to make eye contact. People in BMWs and Lexuses won't look at you, the panhandlers say. People in beaters give the most. When someone gives you money, that's a hit. Or a lick. Try to look friendly but not too happy. Remember, you're hurting.
Don't smoke or drink beer or scratch yourself. Don't wipe your nose or pick your scabs. Who would want to slide money into that hand? Stand on one foot sometimes so drivers will think you're not drunk; your eyes are bloodshot because you've been crying. And just because some hippie gives you a baggie of mushrooms, it doesn't mean you're going to trip.
"People hand you all sorts of things," said Damion Ogdee, 29, who works the Hyde Park area. He has gotten Budweisers and Pop-Tarts, cigarettes and T-shirts. His buddy once scored four tickets to a Poison concert.
Women give more money than men. Female panhandlers fare better but have to put up with obscene propositions. "If I was doing that," said a thin young woman named Sarah, "you think I'd be out here holding this sign?"
She was at the 22nd Avenue N off ramp in St. Petersburg. Her cardboard said, "Stranded! Trying to get home." With all the competition, it's no longer enough to be generically needy.
"The more specific your request, the more people can relate," said Sarah. "That way they think they're really helping."
• • •
Two debates divide the panhandling community: Stay on one corner or float? Wheelchair or walker?
If you always work the same sidewalk, regulars get to know you. If you float from spot to spot, your face — and your story — stay fresh.
Some say wheelchairs increase people's pity. But if you're in a chair, you can't get to the cars. Wheelchair Dave, they say, did better with his cane.
"A lot of people out here aren't sincere," said Roderick Couch, the "disabled" ex-con. "That messes it up for the rest of us."
According to Couch, there are low-class panhandlers "who sleep outside and won't even clean themselves." And high-class panhandlers "who might even work a little on the side, so they don't really need your money."
"Me and Jazmine," he said, "we're middle-class. We believe in washing our clothes and our butts. We got morals."
Like everyone else interviewed, they have criminal records. He served time for stealing from the Spring Hill IHOP where he worked. His girlfriend was arrested for prostitution.
• • •
Your sign is your voice. You have only a few words to get sympathy at a stoplight.
Scrawl your messages in magic marker on the back of a Listerine box or a pilfered "Home for Sale" placard. Highlight your words with crayons. End your pleas with three exclamation points.
Are you homeless? A vet? A single dad? A widow? Do you have an ailing mother or pet? All the above?
One guy parades his limping dog. Another says he sends half his money to his 2-year-old son. One admits he stays out just long enough to collect enough for smokes and a six-pack.
"I don't need much. So I don't have to stay out here long," said Jeffrey Buzzard, 49, who lives behind a St. Petersburg church. In the back of his dirty camouflage shorts, he carries three signs. His morning pitch says "Layed off." His evening placard: "No work today." Like he tried. On Sunday, he flies: "Got God? Need daily bread."
Other professional panhandlers swear by the two-sign minimum. You have to watch the cars, switch it up. When Cliff Stewart sees an older driver at 22nd Avenue N, he holds: "Homeless Vet." For people who look like they party, he has: "Why lie? I need beer. God bless!"
God and beer. If you don't like one, he says, you're bound to like the other. And you'd be surprised how many people love both.
• • •
Though their signs say they're homeless, few panhandlers seem to sleep outside. Most make at least enough for a can of beer, a piece of chicken and a cheap motel room. The typical daily take falls between $60 and $100.
Couch and Saldana say they each collect about $80 a day, more than they would make flipping burgers or stocking shelves. They don't have to punch a clock, ask for a lunch break or pay taxes. "A while back, a woman gave us $400," Couch said. "Tell me where you can make that in a day."
Ogdee, outside the Bayshore Publix, sets his weekly quota at $800. His income has never fallen short in the four months he has held "Homeless. Anything helps. God bless!"
"I'm paid a week in advance on my rent," he said. "I got a load of food in my motel fridge."
He insists he's not panhandling. "I'm not asking for nothing. I'm just holding a sign."
So what does he call it? He laughs.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825. Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.