Signs of the Times, Sixteen Years Later

I was looking for a document that went missing on my computer. Something I’m sure has happened to all of you. Something you wanted to save, something you put; where you couldn’t lose it—wouldn’t forget about where you put it and then did. Something that you know is there and for the life of you, you can’t find, until you completely forget about it. The following is the little fragment that I had typed and put away, oh, so long ago:

“Got a dollar,
got a dime
just a few cents to buy
a bottle of wine”

It was dated 1994, my poetry period and around the time I was making the transition into writing screenplays. But that’s not what I’m writing about—the finding of this fragment. I’m writing about how this fragment, I found, got into my mind, burrowed in and sort of pushed everything else aside. I found myself thinking back to 1994 and what had made me write that phrase, the book I had started to write, “Street Sounds”—the one I never finished. The one about winos and panhandlers—street people I saw daily, in downtown Seattle. And then I got to thinking about today and how I now see people begging, panhandling out here in the suburbs, where I live now, where they weren’t before. I thought about the lady in the wheelchair I see by the freeway exit at 175th, and the one-legged guy I see up on 185th and Aurora that hold up signs scrawled on cardboard, asking for money to buy food. It’s not just winos and crack-whores, crazy bag ladies, and heroine addicts, trying to feed their habits; now, there are kids, teenagers, sleeping in the park up on capital hill, mothers with children sleeping in their cars, and young people, carrying all they own on their back, because they can’t find a job, or have a job and still can’t afford the rent, and are now sleeping in a makeshift tent. And I thought to myself, “Why is this happening? And why has it gotten so much worse, since I first started to write about it in 1994?—16 years ago.” “Why hasn’t someone done something about this?”

I asked myself what I could do about it. And I concluded not much, as I am only one person, hold no office, and am far from rich. Then I realized, I’m a writer, and I probably should do what writers do… Write about the situation; get the word in front of others. Maybe, get them to think about the ever growing number of homeless folks, sleeping in an alley or doorway, maybe in the park or under the freeway. Maybe, stir what ever it is in a person which causes them to care about their neighbor. So I sat down and finished the poem I started to write 16 years ago. Maybe it will start a movement, maybe it won’t. But at least I’m doing something. At least someone besides me will be thinking about it.

Got a Dollar, Got a Dime by Wally Lane

They appear each morning
Rising from the
Bowels of our cities
Spreading out through the suburbs
Holding up hand written signs
Pan handling quarters and dimes
Spare change from the passer bys.

It’s an unlikely mix…
Some used up old men,
A few bag-ladies
Yesterday’s yuppie—that’s seen better times,
Some thrown away kids,
A family living in their car,
A pregnant mother—her child by her side.

The abandoned
The betrayed
Each one broken
in some similar
yet different way

They gather on corners
and in the alleys
Of our cities and towns
With bed rolls
And begging bowls
Panhandling quarters and dimes

Derelicts set adrift
Unwanted and unclaimed
Damaged goods
Signs of the times.

Got a dollar?
Got a dime?
Just a few cents to buy
A bottle of wine…a glass,
Just one damn drink of wine?

I’ll work for food,
I’ll work for shelter,
A place to sleep,
A place to sit
And drink my wine

You’ve got so much,
I’ve got so little
Can you share with me?
Do you care about me?
Can you care about anyone
But yourself?

I used to have a job,
Used to have a home,
A wife,
A child….a dream

Got a dollar,
Got a dime
Just a few cents to buy
A bottle of wine…a glass
Just one damn drink….

So’s I can sleep,
So’s I can dream
So’s I can forget this empty ache
In my belly
This empty place
In my chest,
The cold,
The rats

Stop and look at me!
Stop and listen to me.
Stop and think about something
Besides yourself,
Besides your own little world

Look at your perfect World.
Your house of cards.
THINGS are happening out here,
BAD THINGS everywhere
People sleeping in the street,
People crying in the street
People dying in the street

Stop and listen
Listen to the sounds
In the street

Got a dollar,
Got a dime
Just a few cents
To buy a bottle of wine…
A glass
Just one damn drink
Of cheap assed wine
So’s I can escape
This place and time.

11 responses to “Signs of the Times, Sixteen Years Later

  1. Good post, Wally.

    If you want to do more you can also volunteer or donate money to places like Urban Peak – an organization in Colorado that helps homeless teens. There are usually a lot of local groups in a person’s area that are easily found with a little searching.


    • When I was in Denver, I gave an old-timer who was rifling through the trash cans of the Shell station where I was filling up a five. He went straight to McDonalds. In San Francisco, I saw a woman holding up a poster with photos of her children and gave her a fifty for groceries. But these are temporary, one-time fixes. I like your suggestion better.

    • I think volunteering is good and donating food and money helps but i think it takes a slap of some kind to societies head, to wake them up. We seem to have lost our ability to care.

      • 🙂 Except we *are* society, so if we don’t make the change … who will?

        In my opinion we don’t fix big problems with big solutions. We fix them with lots of little ones. Places like Urban Peak “only” help a few hundred out of the thousands of teens who are on the streets in Colorado Springs and Denver. *shrugs* But those few are still people, not statistics. You help one life at a time. It’s the best thing anyone can do.

  2. When I lived on the east coast, I used to just see it on my trips to New York city or Washington DC. I was a single Mom, barely making ends meet and sometimes “robbing Peter to pay Paul” but I shared my lunch or spare change (“spange” is the street word I’ve heard) whenever I had the chance. The most grateful person that I ever met was an old man sitting outside of a restaurant in NYC; I gave him my box of leftovers because it was all I had, and he almost cried.
    Unfortunately, there have been too many people caught committing fraud, “faking it” so to speak, and I’ve seen this with my own eyes too… one “deformed” woman begging money on one street was seen a few blocks later and was perfectly normal. Another man, who supposedly had lost both legs at the knees, got up and walked away when the crowd thinned out after a baseball game. There have also been countless stories about groups of “homeless/vets/single moms/fill-in-the-blank that are organized, assigned their corner or off-ramp, given a sign, and split their money with their “pimp” at the end of their shift. I think we’ve gotten hardened or desensitized because of people like this, which is unfortunate for the people who really need help. Now I donate quite a bit to local food banks, Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc.. I also “adopt” a family at Christmas each year.

    • There will always be grifters taking advantage where ever they can. I agree it causes me to wonder, is this guy for real. But I know there are real people sleeping under bridges and in doorways and it’s not cause they like it.

  3. Touching poem Wally. If we could at least begin to care about our own corner of the world, we’d be able to extend that empathy farther to others. I cannot save the world, but I’m disheartened to see how the homeless, mentally ill , and aged are treated in my own neighborhood.

    Until we can stop judging others as if they’ve asked for their plight, or that these people are somehow less than you and me – we will have a difficult time changing society as a whole.
    It’s a call for compassion which is often sorely lacking.


  4. Love the poem, Wally.

    Over the last few months there seems to have been an upsurge in the number of homeless in my area. It’s heartbreaking to see and I wish there were more I could do other than just donate what I can.

  5. NIce, Wally. I intended for my screenplay “Where the Sidewalk Ends” to highlight the plight of the homeless, but the story took over during the first draft. I intend to make that a focus of the rewrite. So glad these issues matter to you, too. Love to you and Belva from Germany! ~ Dave

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