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…
was… perhaps, but not likely, still is… a Syracuse University
freshmen he was a source of curiosity. Maybe the first experience
for many of such a kind.
was Spare Change.
before we get to the man, the myth, the legend… some background.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.)
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.
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?”
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.
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
at the dorm, the Spare Change stories flew around. Upper classmen
would tell all sorts of stories…
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.
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.
was an athlete… a grad student… any number of other associations
to the school. Spare Change had quite the life.
yet, one and all, legend or no, he was simply Spare Change.
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.
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.
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
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