Got any spare change?


This essay was completed as part of my National Novel Writing Month effort in November 2011. It has been slightly edited from the format used at that time, and likely will be edited again at some point in the future. For now, here it is…

He was… perhaps, but not likely, still is… a Syracuse University legend.

For freshmen he was a source of curiosity. Maybe the first experience for many of such a kind.

He was Spare Change.

But before we get to the man, the myth, the legend… some background.

Syracuse University runs the city of Syracuse. Make no mistake about that. Whether by the dominance of collegiate athletics… the presence of the Carrier Dome…the ownership of local businesses… or any of a number of other factors, there is little in Syracuse that is not Syracuse University.

The campus is nestled on a hill. And with the sprawling campus structures… especially the white, marshmallow roof of the Dome... visible from around the city and surrounding areas, its significance is visually created for you.

A few streets from the campus you will find Marshall Street… more of less the central hub of activity for students. This is it… pizza and beer and gift shops. Everything a college student would need… greasy food and alcohol and a fraternity sweatshirt.

Now Marshall Street isn’t the only street in the area. Instead, it’s more of the name given to refer to the entire location. Varsity Pizza, a campus attraction of epic proportions, is located on Marshall Street. Only it isn’t. Varsity is actually at the end of Marshall, and uses a South Crouse Avenue address. And running parallel to Marshall are Waverly Avenue and East Adams Street.

Walking along South Crouse, there used to be a McDonald’s. (Don’t look for it. Doesn’t seem to be there anymore. Although in researching this article, and looking for McDonald’s locations in Syracuse, I did find some splendid reviews. Jokes about decaf coffee and lobster bisque and wine lists. Folks… it is a McDonald’s… what are you expecting? Hot fries are pretty much the beginning and the end of any quality demands that are reasonable to make. Anyway… back to our story…)

This McDonald’s was located between Marshall and East Adams. And off to the side of the McDonald’s was the exact kind of generic brick wall that you might expect to see a panhandler stake out.

Enter Spare Change.

To my knowledge, no one knew his name. He looked like any of a number of cartoon characters you might think about. And by that I mean if we picked some Looney Toons filler… something in between a Bugs Bunny – Daffy Duck – Road Runner set of episodes… and had someone down on their luck and in a bar, we would arrive at a character resembling Spare Change. Disheveled, needing a shave but not with a beard, and not looking too fortunate with life. Hat? Check. Heavy coat? Sure. (I seem to recall a Merrie Melodies about a guy frozen in a bar that had brought in a singing fly, only to wash him get squished. That’s the guy.)

He had his place, a fixture along South Crouse. He was there during the day, but never at night… and, now that I consider it, never on weekends. If there was a Dome event or beer chugging crowd, you wouldn’t see him. He was more or less a business-day attraction.

He stood almost against the wall, but just far enough away from it to be constantly swaying a bit back and forth while staring at the ground. As you approached, his lips were moving, and he was talking to himself. Right? Well… yeah. But as you passed, whispered but unmistakable was a single phrase: “Got any spare change?”

Hence the name.

You could go to any student of Syracuse University… likely to any employee of the hospitals on Crouse and Adams… possibly to hundreds if not thousands of others that were in the area regularly during the years 1985 to 1990 or so. If you asked them if they had ever seen Spare Change, they would know exactly who you meant.

In my mind’s eye, I can’t see a single person giving money to Spare Change. I just don’t recall that happening. But he was there. Just about every day. And even though Chuck’s and Sutter’s are likely long gone, and Varsity may be the only name and place that remains true today to what it was when I was a student there, if I walked along South Crouse and saw Spare Change, I think for some reason the atmosphere on the road would seem perfectly the same.

Back at the dorm, the Spare Change stories flew around. Upper classmen would tell all sorts of stories…

Spare Change used to be a professor at Syracuse University. His department and teachings changed depending on who was telling the story. (One time I even heard his school adjusted to the State University of New York campus that resides next to Syracuse University.) Someone majoring in say, English, would have him teaching some literature courses. A Math major would have him be a brilliant calculus mind. You get the idea. He simply lost his marbles, left the school, and now lived on the street.

For some, Spare Change was actually a millionaire. No one had ever seen him arrive for the day or leave. It was almost magical. Freshmen were told he got dropped off and picked up by a limousine.

He was an athlete… a grad student… any number of other associations to the school. Spare Change had quite the life.

And yet, one and all, legend or no, he was simply Spare Change.

If you search your local paper… or hop on the internet… you are likely to find an example of a charity gone wrong. And while perhaps not the charity we know by definition… of a cause instead or an individual… there are also plenty of examples of charity cases gone wrong. It seems the reality is that we can only hope our time and our money is being used as best as it could.

Recently I read an article about a shopping complex, where the writer noted someone claiming to be homeless at the entrance, asking for money. Amazingly, the writer mentioned it was always just a single person asking for money, though not always the same person, even though the sign appeared to be the exact same sign used by any person previously stationed along the entry way.

Getting off the highway often brings you to people selling papers and bottled water. Smart marketing? Perfect product placement? Maybe. But again, more likely, ingenuity at raising funds by tugging on heartstrings.

The days of Spare Change are in the past, at least for me, but the memory lingers on. And the questions and background created for trusting and unsuspecting minds may actually have become reality, and panhandling for a dollar and a cup of coffee (or a trip to the liquor store) becomes instead an occupation and reliable revenue stream.

Spare change indeed.

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