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February 6, 2009 / Maleesha Kovnesky

Cardboard Signs of the Times

With the economy swinging wildy in one direction (okay -> looking grim -> has anyone seen my job -> soup line) I have noticed many changes ’round here.  Besides the obvious changes, that is…For Sale signs everywhere you look, stores going out of business left and right, and charities begging for every penny they can get because of the higher demand for their purpose.

The first change came at work.  It was small, but noticeable.  The hot chocolate with marshmallows didn’t get restocked in the break room. 

The second change I caught was during a lunch with co-workers.  The tomatoes were gone from the sandwiches.  I remember back in my waitress days, the owner knew exactly how much a slice of tomato cost him, so he forbid using it as a garnish on the plate, unless it was requested by the patron.

Lastly, the population of cardboard-sign totin’ people has skyrocketed on the street corners of Bozeman.

I just want to say that if I was going to be homeless for any length of time, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be homeless in Montana in February.  I’d beg and scrimp until I had enough money for a bus to Miami.  Oh sure, there would be hurricanes to worry about, but after a good hurricane everyone is living in the shelter, so it would be kind of like a step up.

All these cardboard signs have me wondering though…who are the real people in need and who are the people taking advantage of mass sympathy?  I started thinking about it.  If I wanted to scam people for their spare change, what would I need:

  • Tattered piece of cardboard – the more rips and exposed corrugation, the better.
  • Dirty, olive green jacket. 
  • Oily hair.
  • A sharpie

And here is where I start getting skeptical.  If I need a pen to write something down, I can never find an effin’ pen.  I dig through drawers and my purse and fifteen minutes later when I find a pen, it’s out of ink and I have to start again.  So how in the world do all of these people in need find Sharpies?  I often need a Sharpie, and these are even more rare than pens.

And cardboard.  Why is it always cardboard?  And why is it always BROWN cardboard?  I’ve driven down many a littered street in my life, and I almost NEVER see big hunks of sign-sized cardboard laying in the median.  I do see a lot of drink cups, balled-up flyers, and newspaper pages.  I see cans and cigarette butts too, but you can’t make a sign out of those.

So when I see someone in dire need of assistance, God bless, on a corner, I think “How long did it take you to find a piece of cardboard AND a Sharpie?”  Perhaps there is an underground network we don’t know about…a network of stores that hand out cardboard and Sharpies, much like how Wal-Mart lets RVers stay in their parking lots. 

And being an easily-guilt ridden individual, I feel terrible doubting the street-cornered folk.

Last month I drove past a man holding a sign:


The Greyhound station was across the street.  I felt an almost primal need to hand the guy all the money in my purse and get him on the bus to warmer climes.  But as much as my heart wanted to help him, my head insisted that I don’t.  It turned out to be a good thing, because I drove by the corner yesterday and he is still out there with his sign.  Fraud!  Player of the sympathetic!

Lately the signs have been getting more creative.  I saw one on North 19th that said:

Temporarily out of Work – Dreaming of a CHEESEBURGER

and one that said:


Finally I saw a woman who was holding up a sign.  Barely readable and written in pen on the back of an orange flyer, it said

Stuck.  Need help.

No cardboard.   No Sharpie.  Just a simple sign, and one of the more authentic. 

I kept driving.  I had a few dollars in my purse, but I didn’t part with them.  I might need them sooner or later.  Sharpies are expensive.



Leave a Comment
  1. teeni / Feb 13 2009 11:17 pm

    It is kind of scary that you have to say no sometimes because it isn’t much keeping us from being right beside them looking for handouts too.

  2. bluesuit12 / Feb 11 2009 9:36 pm

    When I was visiting my sister in CA a lady came up to my sister and I and said “you guys look cool. I’ll be honest, I want money for pot.” At least she was honest I guess.

  3. crisitunity / Feb 6 2009 4:32 pm

    I have an interesting story about a time that I was possibly scammed in London, but it’s too big for this space. I think I would have asked the last lady if she needed a ride somewhere. “Stuck” is such a desperate word to put on one of those signs.

    I also might have bought the one guy a pack of cigarettes and some Miller High Life. At least he’s telling the truth.

  4. cherikooka / Feb 6 2009 3:13 pm

    I don’t have any money to give, and if I did, I don’t know if I would.

  5. shmode / Feb 6 2009 2:20 pm

    My heart always rips in two when I see this. It’s not often a scam here, but I won’t give money. I keep hoping I’d have enough time to go get them a sandwich, but I never do. *sigh*

  6. Becky / Feb 6 2009 1:30 pm

    When we lived in Missoula (state capital of panhandlers, it seemed), I used to carry baggies of dog food in my car…only because I saw so many sign-totin’ fools with skinny dogs. You get the warm fuzzies without contributing to alcoholism.

  7. Mike / Feb 6 2009 1:15 pm

    We got scammed once by a panhandler near Bourbon Street in New Orleans years ago. Never, again!

    Last week, leaving WalMart, a lady with a card table, bucket and sign was asking for donations to help abused kids. I just sort of half-waved and went on to the truck.

    As I was driving out, though, I had a change of heart. The last place where there would likely be a scam would be at the front door of WalMart, so I pulled up next to her, got out, pulled out my wallet and stuck some bills in her bucket. I also apologized for just walking by. She looked really surprised! 😉

  8. morethananelectrician / Feb 6 2009 1:00 pm

    There are a band of signholders that actually run this as a business here…bee doing it for years. We have offered day work to a coupole of them previously, but been denied. It has clouded my judgement in a bad way, but I will alwys give the change from my Mt. Dew purchase when hit outside of a convenience store…

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