ST. PETERSBURG — He's lost a lot of weight and gained a white beard. So it could take a minute to place the amiable fellow leaning on a shopping cart and wielding a white sign on the side of 22nd Avenue S.
I am in a legal battle with the federal gov't. They owe me $100K. I need your help.
Twelve years ago, Harry Kitchen ran for mayor of St. Petersburg. It was a hopeless cause, but through sheer charm and wit, Kitchen emerged as one of the most appealing fringe candidates the city had ever seen. At forum after forum, audiences and rivals took note of his sincerity and smarts.
Today, Kitchen, 60, spends much of his time on the side of a busy road, looking for handouts.
"I'm not really panhandling," Kitchen clarified amid the din of traffic at U.S. 19 and 22nd Avenue S. "This is networking."
Kitchen differentiates himself from other "stupid and lazy" panhandlers because he's spreading the word about veterans being mistreated. Plus he sometimes sells bottled water, a buck a bottle, which really puts him in the category of entrepreneur.
Often, though, it's just Kitchen with his Semper Fi signs, shopping cart and the golf club he uses as a cane.
"Just trying to stay alive," the would-be mayor explained Thursday, without a hint of self-pity in his voice.
Kitchen won 692 votes in 1997, 2 percent of the total primary vote, against Bill Klein, David Fischer and Leslie Curran. He went on to campaign for Fischer's successful re-election against Klein, alongside such political pros as current Mayor Rick Baker and current mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons.
Odd as it sounds for a guy seeking money from passing motorists, Kitchen thinks St. Petersburg has made great strides since that election. Racial tensions have subsided considerably, he said, mostly crediting a change in attitude among police officers.
The Vietnam veteran and former high school football star spent two years in prison for 1989 charges that included sale of cocaine, and he can't vote because he lost his voting rights. Still, he's following the campaign.
Cracking down on panhandling is a common campaign promise in this election. Kitchen is unimpressed with the rhetoric.
"You could have a hundred people here with me on the side of the road, but that doesn't mean people have to stop and give them money," Kitchen said. "If people want to give it, I don't see what the problem is."
Kitchen served in the Air Force and Marines until being honorably discharged in 1976, and he acknowledges he has never entirely escaped the pull of crack cocaine. He spent some time in a homeless shelter in Charleston, S.C., a few years ago, but Kitchen is not homeless now and receives a pension from the VA.
He talks a lot about the lawsuit he has filed against the Veterans Administration for not recognizing that combat-related post traumatic stress disorder makes it impossible to hold a job. He is representing himself in court, something he has often done over the years because he's never found a lawyer more effective.
"All that notoriety," Kitchen chuckled, as he recounted seeing himself featured in the newspaper and on TV during the 1997 campaign. On Thursday, he was thrilled when a St. Petersburg Times videographer showed up.
"Give us some money," a beaming Kitchen jokingly shouted to passing motorists, "and you'll be on camera!"
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.