Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bennington's Peaceful Protest Against Panhandling Ordinance

A little girl holds a sign underscoring the message
during Sunday's peaceful protest (Joey Kulkin photo)
"I have a roof.
I'm fortunate today."

BENNINGTON -- This town has fought for the cause since August 16, 1777, so it should surprise no one that close to 100 Benningtonians flocked to the four corners today to peacefully protest the town's 6-day-old ordinance (here) crafted to punish belligerent beggars and people living in cars.

What began as Black Friday pushback by Fiddlehead at Four Corners owner Joel Lentzner (here) ...

It was 19 degrees but Fiddlehead owner Joel Lentzner
sat on the front stoop of his art gallery for 115 minutes
to deliver his message. (Joey Kulkin photo)

... mushroomed into a movement just 48 hours later when the lone town leader who voted against the ordinance organized today's peaceful protest.

"It's not easy to stand alone," Selector Jim Carroll said in the crowd.

Then the piano teacher announced the protest on Facebook and it was on.

I've lived in Bennington on and off for the last 18 years. I've walked downtown as much as any townie has. I know what panhandling is. I know what aggressive panhandling is. Panhandling is not a problem in Bennington let alone aggressive panhandling. Here are a couple of faces downtown regulars might recognize ...

I stumbled upon these fellas a week apart about 18 months ago.

The first guy asked me for $3 as I walked by him on the corner of Main and School. Sorry, I said, but I don't have 3 bucks. That was a lie. I had exactly $3 in my pocket after lunch at Nova Mae Cafe; best panini I ever ate. Instead of giving him money I gave the guy the unopened bottle of tea that I didn't drink at the cafe. 

When you think about it, as I did in the moment, the tea was probably the only healthy liquid he drank in a week. I said something to the effect "Hey, it's better than nothing." 

He took the bottle of tea but looked at me with sad puppy eyes. He wanted cash. I thought "Jesus Fucking Christ, dude, this is really good tea and cost me 3 bucks!"

I continued walking toward the four corners.

Ten step later I stopped, turned, walked back to the guy and told him I have 3 dollar bills and that I'd give them to him if he let me take his photograph. He wanted something. I wanted something. Click. We crossed paths again on Main Street days later. He asked me for 3 bucks, again. I said no and asked him not to ask me again. 

He apologized and moped away.

Sure sounds aggressive to me.

The second guy in the tie-dye asked me for 2 bucks when I was in front of the gallery. I asked if he was going to buy a 40 with my money. He laughed and said Yes. Party boy. I had 2 bucks to spare and said I'd give it to him if I could take his picture. He used me. I used him. Click.

I've been told by a member or two of the big boy club that I'm part of the problem because the town helps poor clods like the ones above on every front -- food, shelter, medical and social services -- so I make the problem worse by giving these beggars extra cash to get drunk or buy smokes.

And I say tough shit. I've been in dire straits and asked for money to survive. I'm lucky to know people who helped me through the dark days. This is my way of paying it forward.

Arla Foster, who turns 60 on Christmas Day,
lives in an old school bus (Joey Kulkin photo)

The woman who provided a temporary home to 6,000 people is homeless and lives in an old school bus on Burgess Road. "I'm always cold," Arla said, "because there's no heat on the bus. The bus is about a bigger problem."

Living in automobiles, and how the town will crack down on those who violate the ordinance, presents the bigger issue, one that many protester's spoke against. One woman said the shelter on North Street, usually packed, does not allow pets so one guy she knows refuses to stay there and sleeps in his car across the street because "he doesn't want to give up his puppy."

With each passing minute in the 12 o'clock hour, one Benningtonian after another packed the four corners. Their ages ranged from 70 to 4. Many brought anti-ordinance signs. 

The ordinance will take effect in 2 months unless Mary Gerisch, secretary for the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless, gets 500 signatures to force a vote. Read more about what the Bennington Banner wrote about Gerisch (here) in the weekend edition.

If today's gathering is an indication, Gerisch should have 500 names in a few weeks.

Benningtonians love a good fight. Just ask the ghost of Gen. Burgoyne.

Benningtonians showed up in force today, starting with Gerisch ...

Gerisch gets another signature
(Joey Kulkin photo)

Followed by Polly van der Linde the piano teacher ...

Polly "panhandled" $168 for the cause
(Joey Kulkin photo)

Followed by Joel and Nina and their 3 daughters ...

Joel and Nina have owned and operated Fiddlehead since 2000
(Joey Kulkin photo)

Followed by the masses ...

The Four Corners were packed but nobody interrupted
holiday shopping traffic (Joey Kulkin photo)
For more photos by Annette Joly Griffith click HERE

Here's what some of them said on the Facebook page dedicated to the protest ...

And here's what many of them did in the middle of the road ...

Joel Lentzner, Fiddlehead's owner and a 1991 Bennington College graduate, contemplated on his sit-in. "Wild that a small thing I did to show my kids how to protest against something you think is wrong is turning into something that might actually bring about change."

Then again, Benningtonians don't like to be trifled with.