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Code of the Road
Written by The Boxman


The Boxman

    Street people have their own set of values.  For example, it is that it is OK to live in the same clothes for three days and reek of stale beer. As a social class, they have rules different than the laws most of us live by.  We have a set of published laws arrived at by law makers, judges and, sometimes, common sense all written down into a code.  Street people have their own code, and it has a name: The Code of the Road.
    The Code of the Road is something of a street person secret, like the secret handshake that Fred and Barney shared as members of the Water Buffalo Lodge. The bum’s code is a general set of principles shared between, well,  the bums.  We first learned of the Code of the Road from a panhandler named Stevie, who alluded that the code existed to us outsiders who write stories about street people.  It seemed that Dutch, another bum, had been breaking parts of the code and was being punished by the other panhandlers who would not let him hustle change on any of the street corners for about a mile, forcing him to move to a new part of town.
    Stevie explained the existence of the code when we spotted Dutch trying to panhandle in front of Stevie on the same corner.  Yet almost a year later, we had not been able to get any street people to share any portions of the code with us.  Then we met Frisbee Tom, so called because he hangs out in the park, throws the Frisbee, and does tricks with it to try and earn money.  We did not have to tip Tom for his tricks to get him to divulge elements of the code; just spot him a few dollars and buy him a pint of cheap, cold vodka from the wino liquor store.
    According to Frisbee Tom, the code is a loose set of rules for street people - so that even under the influence of whatever brain scrambling substance that has put you out on the street, you are still able to function in polite street person society.  Just like in normal society, there are penalties for breaking the rules of the code.  A Supreme Bum Court may not hand down sanctions, but the loose network of street people seem to effectively deal out punishments, ranging from banning a street person from a bum camp to excluding them from panhandling in a prosperous area.  
The following is, in no manner, the complete Code of the Road  - just what we have learned from various street people by applying a pint of vodka to their lips:

The Code of the Road

1.    Share the Panhandle:  This does not mean that street people pool the money they panhandle. But if you are panhandling in a spot and another street person comes along, you two are supposed to alternate hustling change. Basically, you have to give the other guy a chance to make some money.  The penalty for cutting into someone else’s panhandling space is sever, from banishment from the camp to all the other street people who work the area ganging up on the offender and never giving him any space.  They will all flood the corner he is working until he just goes away.

2.    Share the Bottle:  This does not mean every street person owes the other a drink. It means everyone should come to the hangout or camp with something, but if you have had a bad day of panhandling, or have the beer sickness (meaning withdrawals), others should share to help you out a little, but not fund your next binge.  It is like a college frat party – you should bring your own beer and not be a mooch; but if you are sick, someone should give you a little “hair of the dog” to get you on your feet.  If you are deemed a mooch by the group, they have been known to either pack up your stuff and move you or when you leave pack up camp and leave you alone.

3.    Share the Entertainment: Each street person has an obligation to the group to entertain the other members of the camp with a story or talent.  It is hard to get Direct TV hooked up under a highway overpass so each member of the camp is expected to have a story to tell or a talent to entertain the group.

4.    Camp With Like Demons: It was interesting to learn that bums have standards. Although many of these people have substance demons that might be part of the reason they are on the street, it is considered wrong to use drugs in a camp set up by drinkers.  Street people are supposed to camp with other street people with similar vices.  It is not that drugs are discouraged, but street people primarily want to be left alone to do what they want all day. Most street people say that if you are drinking and not causing any trouble, the police leave you alone, but they always hassle people if drugs are involved.  So bringing drugs into a drinking bum camp is like inviting the police to raid their camp and hassle the drinkers.  It is a big bum no-no.

5.    Cure the Beer Sickness:  Because many street people have alcohol problems, when they don’t make any money, a street person is subject to withdrawals.  This is referred to as “the beer sickness” by the bums.  Other street people are expected to share only enough of their stash to help the “beer sick” street person get healthy enough to go and get his own.  This is based on the fear that sooner or later they are all going to be hit by a case of the beer sickness.

6.    Don’t Draw Attention: This is a fine line as panhandling is all about attention.  This rule of the code is that much like the drug vs. drinking issue.  Street people don’t want to be hassled by the law, as it is never going to end up good for them.  The key is to not draw attention by drinking in front of businesses or screaming and ranting.  Street people seem to agree that police are generally too busy to hassle their panhandling as long as they are not a nuisance.

7.    Own Your Street Name:  Most street people adopt a street name different from their given name.  Some may be a nickname like “General,” or like Tom, whose street name “Frisbee” came from always carrying one around.  The street name helps separate the street person’s bum life from real life.  It as if the person they once were still exists, but is in suspended animation and all the bad things they do on the street happen to their street nickname, not them.  I am sure some analyst will share a theory of dissociative disorder based on this habit.  The rule is that once you adopt your street name, own it, don’t change it or use someone else’s.  Street people identify fraud as a bad breach of the code.  Because street people don’t own much, or desire to own much, the only thing they do care about is their street name, which, if you have a good one, can open up doors to camps, a shared bottle, or a meal.  Thus, doing something to damage a street name is one of the few breaks of the code that could end with the offender getting a beating.

8.    Don’t Steal… From Other Street People:  Although theft is not promoted as a way to make a living, several street people we interviewed admitted to shoplifting.  Because stealing often violates rule 6, many street people don’t like to camp with the ones that steal to earn their keep.  The true taboo is to steal from another street person.  The camp is often the small space they have to store anything of value, to a street person, and stealing from each other just promotes distrust, which leads to arguments that turn into fights, which is a sure violation of rule 6.  There may be no honor among thieves, but there seems to be honor amongst bums.

    The second part of this rule is that street people will often pool resources (money) to get something they need (such as a bottle).  It is considered a major break of the code if you are sent with the pooled money to get the needed item and you do not return.  Breaking the code in this manner does not just get you banned from the just one camp, but all camps in a set area.  Street people travel between camps and will spread the word about a crazy, troublesome street person to other camps (see rule 7).

    This is in no manner a complete set of The Code of the Road, as it is a flexible set of guidelines.  The existence of the code does not make street people noble or trustworthy.  They are not on some great urban camping adventure, living as modern hippies, recycling the cast offs of a fat society.  The majority of them have some story and a demon that is attached to that story. When the demon and the code clash, the code is usually broken.

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