Le Grand Pissoir

The nightmare in which I fell into a toilet. Or was I just downtown?

"Begging is protected speech," he said from his home phone. "Begging is a message. The streets are the public forum of the people and always have been." I bet his wife was pulling on his sleeve to go get in the car, but Fullinwider gets pretty passionate about this stuff. He said it's typical of Dallas to want to deal with poverty through regulation rather than generosity.

"This is a constitutional issue, and there will be a constitutional challenge if I have to do it myself," he said.

He said he doesn't believe homeless people are the reason the southern side of downtown has lagged. He was on the thoroughfare commission in the '80s when the Woodall Rodgers Expressway along the north edge of downtown was being designed. "The placement of the exits and entrances, the location of the new art museum, the economic activity from Oak Lawn and the Park Cities: Those are the reasons the north side is ahead."

Later he called back from the airport and said, "If we can't respect the needs of the homeless, at least we can respect their rights." I was tempted to say, "John, would you mind calling off your vacation so we can talk a little more about this?" But in a case like that, I might actually be more afraid of his wife than that guy who hit me up for seven bucks.

Oh, sure, sorry: Where were we with that? I'm back walking across the hot parking lot toward the Stewpot--which is a day ministry to the homeless run by First Presbyterian--wondering why Dallas smells like a urinal. I enter through the steel doors; someone is calling Bingo for the homeless in a big open room; and there way at the back are Clora Hogan and Gordon Hilgers.

Hogan is the publisher of Endless Choices, a free newspaper distributed on the street by homeless people who ask a dollar donation for it. Hilgers, who has been homeless himself, is editor. Endless Choices provides its homeless sales force with a way to work for money instead of begging.

Hogan is worried that the mayor and city council will pass some kind of blanket ban on street solicitation downtown that would put Endless Choices out of business. When I told her about my experience with Mr. "Financial Assistance" on the way over, she said that kind of "aggressive panhandling" is already against the law.

"There's a law called solicitation by coercion. If someone who is holding a sign or walking actually approaches someone in a harassing way, then they are arrested, fined or whatever."

Later I called Dallas police Lieutenant Vincent Goldbeck, unit commander of the central business district, who confirmed that local and state laws prohibit what Mr. Assistance was doing to me. But there's a hitch.

"Like most Class C misdemeanors, an officer has to observe it happening," Goldbeck said.

I can't complain to a cop that I have been aggressively panhandled or coerced or whatever, because if the cop didn't see it happen, it's he-said, she-said. And the guy, Mr. Assistance, will have his story down.

The outlines of what the mayor and council are considering as a new panhandling ordinance are very shadowy right now, still in development, as they would say in Hollywood. I couldn't get anybody involved to run it down for me except to say that it's all being negotiated.

I confess. I hate those guys who ruin downtown by running street rackets on people. Especially the ones who run rackets on me. And I also know that in early-21st-century America there is an absolute ceiling on whatever good can happen in an area where people defecate on the sidewalk. If democracy is the great leveler, sidewalk defecation is the great sinker.

But I keep thinking of the health aide from St. Paul Hospice who has been coming to shave my father and shampoo his hair. She told us one afternoon that her husband is an unpaid preacher who for years has run a church in South Dallas for street people, drug addicts, prostitutes, drunks and bums.

"We help them turn their lives around," she said softly.

I asked her how you get people like that to turn their lives around. "What is the secret?"

Running a comb through my father's diaphanous hair, she said, "Love."

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