What we can learn from a homeless guy

The red sheath of fabric stuck to the chain link fence probably looked like trash to most folks. But not to Tucsonan Rick Falco.

Falco spots the red fabric on fence/Ryn Gargulinski

Falco spots the red fabric on fence/Ryn Gargulinski

Falco, 53, was riding by on his bicycle when he spotted the fabric next to the train tracks near Ruthrauff Road. He picked it up, examined it, then folded it neatly for his bike basket.

He said it was a chair back or something and that it might come in handy. You never know – a lot of things have come in handy since he’s been homeless for the past five years.

Although we only spoke for about seven minutes while I was off the train at a break during my Union Pacific ride-along, that was enough time for Falco to share some quick lessons.

Like where to panhandle. If done right, panhandling can make for some lucrative earnings. The most he’s made was $27 in 20 minutes, which comes to a rate of $81 per hour.

Nice. That’s right up there with lawyers, dentists and veterinarians.

Of course, the money is not always as consistent. Earnings depend on where you go, who you meet and the general public’s general mood of the day.

Some days folks are just generous while other days all they do is scowl. Collecting cans makes a good backup plan. People in cars are generally more generous than people walking the streets.

Tucsonan Rick Falco has been homeless for five years/Ryn Gargulinski

Tucsonan Rick Falco has been homeless for five years/Ryn Gargulinski

The $81-per-hour spot was a frontage road near Fort Lowell Road, Falco said, with frontage roads making some ideal spots.

You want to pick one with a red light, of course, as you’ll have a better chance at some cash if the drivers are actually stopped. Not many motorists are likely to slow down, pull over and dig through their purse or wallet just hand someone a buck or some loose change.

The frontage roads are also one-streets, a must when it comes to checking for oncoming cops that will inevitably chase you away. Two way streets or larger intersections make it easy for police to sneak up and around at a variety of angles.

Once the cops nab you, Falco says panhandlers go directly to jail. Well, at least he did when he was busted for it. It didn’t help he had an outstanding warrant for not attending court-mandated alcohol counseling for a pervious DUI.

He said the DUI counseling was something like $500, which he never had the money to pay so he never went. That would be a heck of a lot of panhandling hours, even on the Fort Lowell frontage road. He no longer has a car.

The court situation has since been cleared up, but Falco still knows how to watch his back. Cops are not the No. 1 threat for homeless folks, however. Falco said that honor goes to fellow homeless folks. They are the ones most likely to steal all your stuff.

The most Falco has made panhandling was $27 in 20 minutes/Ryn Gargulinski

The most Falco has made panhandling was $27 in 20 minutes/Ryn Gargulinski

Falco wouldn’t tell us where he has his things hidden – since that would just be stupid – but he did mention he had some dandy items like a TV and some other electronics left over from when he did have a home.

Jobs simply dried up for this long-experienced landscaper. Then he was thrown in jail for the DUI, his cat got bitten by a rattlesnake and died, and he now lives on the streets collecting spare change and cans.

Here comes the biggest lesson of all – this guy is still upbeat. Rather than pining for what he doesn’t have, he focused on what he did have.

“It’s pretty good out here for being homeless,” he said of Tucson. He’s been in Old Pueblo for 30 years and shudders at the thought of being homeless in his native New Jersey.

Falco was riding a working manual bicycle and had a gas-powered one stashed somewhere, probably near his TV. He eats regularly, knows where to make money and finds places to sleep where he doesn’t get beaten, robbed or murdered.

Oh, and don’t forget he got some new red fabric from the fence. Sometimes small things can make us happy – one more simple, yet important lesson.


Tucsonan Rick Falco knows the best places to panhandle/Ryn Gargulinski

Tucsonan Rick Falco knows the best places to panhandle/Ryn Gargulinski


Ryn Gargulinski is a poet, artist, performer and TucsonCitizen.com Ryngmaster who was never any good at panhandling. Her column appears every Friday on Rynski’s Blogski. Her art, writing and more is at RynRules.com and Rynski.Etsy.com. E-mail rynski@tucsoncitizen.com.


What do you think?

What lessons have you learned from unlikely people or places?

What’s your take on homeless people? Are you scared of them?

Do you hate them? Do you love them? Are you sad?


About Rynski

Writer, artist, performer who specializes in the weird, wacky and sometimes creepy. Learn more at ryngargulinski.com.
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27 Responses to What we can learn from a homeless guy

  1. azmouse says:

    For the longest time I saw a guy who lived at a bus stop at Golf Links near Kolb. For months, he was there every time I drove by, which was usually at least a couple times a day.

    One chilly morning, I grabbed an extra blanket and cruised over to meet him. His name was Nelson. He wouldn’t take the extra blanket I brought him, but he was grateful for the coffe and bagel I brought. We just sat and had coffee together and had small talk. He was very nice, very smart and I told him I stopped to introduce myself because I considered him one of my neighbors, since I saw him every day. He seemed to like that.

    For about a year I would stop off and on and hang out with him. He never talked about why he was in his situation and I never asked. I remember I had gotten one of those cool gold dollar coins. I figured Nelson had never seen one so I took it to him to give to him and he wouldn’t take it. I was practically begging him to to take it and he wouldn’t. He said he just appreciated my friendship.

    One day he was just not there any more. I haven’t seen him in a few years, but I never forgot him.

    Homeless people, service people, old or young people, ethnic people, neighbor people, handicapped people…….obviously, the key word is people and all deserve the same dignity and respect.

    • Rynski says:

      right on, azmouse – PEOPLE is the key word.
      how kind of you to befriend nelson – and how refreshing he only wanted friendship (although i would haven taken the gold coin – hahah – kidding!).
      i think too often homeless people become nameless faces – a big blur that some despise and others even fear.
      rick seemed very amicable – as well as glad to have someone to talk to, even if it were only seven minutes or less. he was also happy to provide his name and smile for the camera.
      one more note – there was a homeless guy living in the rillito for more than a year with his shopping cart, sleeping bag and makeshift tent – and then he just disappeared one day – stuff and everything, gone.
      i always wonder where he went and why – now you’ll have me wondering about nelson, too.

  2. bonlee says:

    Great story Ryn. Tucson has some of the most colorful and creative homeless people; I ride the bus a lot and talk to a lot of them at bus stops. There are a few neighborhood homeless regulars I know from running every morning too. Mostly harmless, try to help whenever I can.

    • Rynski says:

      thanks, bonlee!
      also glad to hear you have an open mind – and heart. i agree on tucson having gads of colorful and creative folks, esp. some homeless people. living off your wits is where TRUE creativity comes in.
      thanks for comment.

  3. ericheithaus says:

    Thank you for this important story.

  4. andrew says:

    Ryn, you outta go down there in the wash where the big screen tv is. One guy has horses in a corral and the campsites are everywhere. Or use my boat and you film as we meander down the Santa Cruise passing by the many homeless camps, hopefully we won’t lose our paddle. My idea was to have the city buy TeePee’s and covered wagons for the homeless and have them around the rivers banks so the tourists have something to see in the Old Pueblo and if the neighbors don’t like it, they can pack up the Teepee’s and wagons and vamoose upstream in style. and the captcha is;End Leewards

    • Rynski says:

      dear end leewards,
      i do like your idea! but having homeless people living in one general area can easily backfire. when i moved to the tompkins square park area of nyc in 1988, the entire park was known as ‘tent city.’
      that summer went down in infamy as the ‘summer of the riots.’ link to a few pix:
      sooooo….maybe the wagons, since they are mobile and easily vamoose-able, will work out a tad more peacefully….

  5. Jo Dean says:

    Wow, amazing story indeed. I think most US people dont realize they are just a couple paychecks away from being in the same boat.

    • Rynski says:

      thanks, jo dean.
      and yes, scary but true, but a couple of paychecks is prob. all it would take for the same boat to come launching….

  6. Hoosier Woman says:

    6 years ago when my 3 sons and I lived on West Speedway, we always went to the Circle K at Speedway/Silverbell. There was an old man who was homeless who was always there panhandling. He wouldnt sit right out in front of the Circle K, but kinda walked around it and stood at the entrances of the driveway. He never asked for money or made up some story about why he needed money, he didnt even carry a sign. Every single time we saw him I would give him some money. Sometimes it was just change, some times just a couple of dollars. I was a single mom and all but knew that I would at least have something to give him. But he always recognized us. He wouldnt talk, I dont think he could, and he looked on the verge of dying. But you could see in his eyes his happiness when he saw us (a single woman with 3 boys) pull up to Circle K in our car. As we would drive past him I (or sometimes my son sitting in the passenger side seat) would reach out the window and hand him some money. He would put his hands together as if praying and would bow in appreciation. My son asked me “What if he uses the money to buy booze instead of food?” I said, “Well that isnt up to us. Once the money leaves our hands it isnt up to us to determine what his greatest need for that day is. Maybe he will use it for booze OR maybe he will use it for food. We dont know, and its not for us to worry about. At least we helped him how we could.” Matter as a fact the guy looked like he could be an alcoholic but he also looked like he didnt have a whole lot of time left on this earth anyway. If he used it to buy booze and deal with his remaining days in more confort then who am I to judge? Well we moved to Indiana. I’m sure he wondered what happened to us since we just disappeared. We dont have any panhandlers in Indiana. But I dont see why you cant give them your change if you want to.

    • Rynski says:

      thanks for story, hoosier woman.
      what a kind way to teach your kids, too, about compassion for others – as well as the mini-lesson about not being able to control what happens with outcome of some circumstances once we’ve done our part.
      very sweet!

  7. Jennatoolz says:

    Great story Ryn! I have both good and bad experiences with homeless folks. One good one happened when I used to work over in the First & Wetmore area. One day while I was leaving work, I was asked by a gentleman for a little change. Rather than give him money, I offered to walk over to Carl’s Jr with him and told him he could get whatever he wanted. He ordered a meal (burger, fries, and drink) and was very appreciative. I said goodbye, but I watched him walk over to a small group of people I hadn’t seen before we went in. I watched as he shared his meal with all of them. I felt glad that I could help not just one guy (as I thought), but a few people that were hungry. 🙂

    • Rynski says:

      thanks, jenna!
      awwww, that is a GREAT story. how wonderful and good for you! on the helping hand.
      good for that guy, too, on HIS helping hand. bet he’s certainly not the type who would want to steal from other homeless folks, either.
      giving food also reminds me how i once eating this GIANT egg salad on a salt bagel on the subway train. it was fluorescent egg salad yellow and huge. a homeless guy across on the other bench woke up and his eyes were just captivated by this giant yellow sandwich.
      yes, he got the uneaten half i still had – and gobbled it in about two seconds.

  8. Ferraribubba says:

    We had no homeless problem on Anaheim, (home of Disneyland.) Disney officials said it was bad PR for out-of-work bums, drifters, grifters, pan-handlers and the like to bother the tourists on their way to the park, so they got on the Mayor’s azz, who in turn got on the Chief’s azz, who got onto your collective azzes to “clean the city up.”
    No sooner said than done. See a homeless person? Flag down a RTD bus, shovel the bum aboard, and tell the driver to dump him off in Garden Grove, Fullerton, Buena Park, or anywhere other than within the Anaheim city limits.
    A happy Disneyland makes a happy Anaheim. And Mickey and Minnie lived happily ever-after.
    Yer happy pal, Officer Bubba

    • Rynski says:

      amazing, officer bubba – but not surprising.
      please don’t do anything to SOLVE or help the situation – just move it where we can’t see it. makes total sense to me (sarcasm).
      but egads, really, how can a happy, home-owning family have a happy disney experience when reality is right outside, blowing the fantasy of eternal bliss all to heck in a hand basket?

      • Ferraribubba says:

        Hey Rynski: You’re a big girl now. You’ve lived in ‘The City’  and experienced life enough to know that the “happy disney experience” is all fantasy, and the city fathers just wanted to extend that fantasy throughout all of Anaheim.
        You can’t imagine the number of hookers that I scooped up from those same bus benches, and the people selling dope right outside the D-Land gates. Go figure. Would you want your kids to see that.
        We used to dread military paydays.  Can you imagine 10,000 or so horny, drunk, 17 or 18 year-old Marine recruits from El Toro, Camp Penelton, or San Diego hitting Disneyland for their very first time? I’ve still got a broken bent pinkie finger to remind me of all the fun I had.
        It was said that you couldn’t find a hooker in ‘Vegas, they were all down in Anaheim, working the Marines.
        Oh, and Rynski, As far as being a Social Worker in Anaheim during the ’70s, we just didn’t have time for that. We were much too busy with other things, like fighting crime, caging free coffee and donuts, and pulling over hot lookin’ babes. <g>
        Anaheim did have a Social Services Dept. that we could call reference a homeless person that needed help, but by in large all they wanted was a quick ride out of town, a short dog, and to be left alone. We normally obliged with all three.
        Yer pal, Officer Bubba

      • Rynski says:

        ha! sounds like quite a party, for sure!
        the happy disney thing in disney is fine – but it kind of turns my stomach when it’s applied elsewhere.
        no offense to pluto et. al., but times square and it environs was certainly disney-fied  and it’s lost all its charm.
        the ‘new’ tompkins square and whole east village is now disney-fied times 1 million – gone are the personality, the history, the allure – and longtime residents that can no longer afford it.
        now it’s astronomical rents, torn down murder houses and lights that blaze the park so bright at night you think the dang thing is on fire.
        where have all the good times gone? (hahahhah)

  9. Al says:

    Homeless people make me appreciate that my modest home is all I every need. They also make me thank god that I have electricity to keep my food cool. I just wonder if those people with huge house and big cars are really happy inside. These people have lost everything and are they happy? They have no bills to worry about, they get warm meals and they have a beer here and there. Makes me wonder.

    • Rynski says:

      hi al,
      i often wonder the same things, esp. the one about the huge house people.
      are those who seemingly have everything really happy? if someone’s heart/soul is truly empty, it can never be filled with material things, i don’t care how many volvos are in the driveway.
      another interesting thing i ponder is the bare necessity question – when folks are so busy just worrying about how they are going to survive, they don’t have time or energy to over-analyze, create problems out of thin air or invent drama for the heck of it.

  10. Veganman says:

    I worked for a company that delivers several hundred pounds of pet food and supplies to the Phoenix Mission every month. (see petsofthehomeless.org for info on how you can help in your area)
    I delivered several of these loads. If the mission knew when we were coming, there would be a line of people waiting for whatever pet items we could provide. Most homeless or ELI (extremely low income) people with pets will feed their pets before themselves.
    My experiences of seeing grown men weep over a free bag of dog kibble, children rejoicing over having a new toy for their pet, and mothers with absolutely nothing telling their kids to just “take 1 toy for Sparky, don’t be greedy”  will stay with me forever. The “thank you” echoes stay strong in my memory. It felt so amazing to extend not only help, but hope to these people. They came in desperate and worried and left smiling. Even if only temporary, their happiness was  real.
    For the first time in my life I actually felt the “emotional quiver” (if you will) knowing that my actions were directly helping someone in dire need, right then and there. Not mailing a check, not a faceless donation jar or food bin. Making a real difference.  Seeing their faces change………….
    Polite, respectful, and extremely grateful. That’s my experience with the homeless I’ve met so far.  I always wonder what their story is, but I’m afraid of being rude. It’s none of my business anyway. Just tell me how I can help.

    • Rynski says:

      aww, YOU are one sweet fellow, veganman.
      …and what a sweet story – good for you on your helping hand. i can relate, too, to people feeding their pets before themselves – but i hope i never have to make that decision.

  11. delabec says:

    During the past 15 years in Tucson, in the landscape and construction business, I have had quite a bit of experience with homeless people, who contract for casual or day labor. Unfortunately this is all that many qualify for, for a variety of reasons:
    Number 1 is lack of transportation, plus other factors that feed upon themselves, no address, no telephone, no place to clean up, improper amount of rest and nutrition. It is a cycle of despair.
    There seems to be some common Factors:
    Substance Abuse 
    Mild to Serious Mental Illness ( a generality) 
    The final and most important one.
    Lack of any support system like” Family”
    This seems to be the most important factor  in the equation.
    In cultures with strong family or kinship ties there is less homelessness.
    I have witnessed a couple of people who have been able to turn this around but they are a very small minority.
    The public support system is inadequate and seems like a trap to most of these people. How can a person pay for alcohol or drug counseling when they can’t even feed themselves? Is the judge brain dead? Who benefits here, the person being sentenced to that or the counseling service?
    Can this problem be resolved in our city, our nation?
    No- Not until we as  a people decide what kind of a nation we want.
    We are quite undecided on this. Many in the public are crying out
    for no tax money to be spent on entitlements. Can’t afford it, don’t want it. They want a dog eat dog nation, like a third world oligarchy.
    One wonders how many people the big bank executives bonuses feed or cloth or help? It’s their money they earned it, but did they?
    Poverty and homelessness are here to stay until we decide.
    I would guess and this is just a guess, that most of the dollar bills and spare change handed out of car windows, is from people who make less than $50,oo0 per year, from people who say to themselves, ” there but for the grace of God, go I” 

    • Rynski says:

      wow, delabec – thanks for your input!
      very interesting and powerful points. i’d agree many who actually hand over money or change are just as you’ve described.
      scary sad.

  12. Ginny says:

    Rick used to work for my family.  He is an immensely talented landscaper and fix-it man.  He has a gift for making gardens gorgeous.
    However, he’s not telling you the whole story.
    Jobs did not dry up.  He stopped showing up for work.  After six weeks of no Rick, we had no choice but to fire him.  His alcoholism rendered him very unreliable.   We tried many times to help him, even allowing him to live free, in a trailer, on property we owned for 4 years.
    He is not a gracious man.  I don’t think we were ever thanked for all the times we tried to help him.  He blames everyone for his problems except himself.
    Things really went downhill for Rick when he got arrested for a DUI and lost his car. He would never admit he had a drinking problem, and he would not get help.
    He worked at an office building owned by my brother.  He was sometimes  surly and unpleasant to the tenants.  And again, quite unreliable. But when he did the work, the grounds really looked beautiful.
    Towards the end, he was charging us for hours that he spent working on his bike.  We had always found  him to be an honest man, so this was disappointing.
    I’d encourage people to hire Rick for small landscaping day jobs.  He is a talented guy.  But you can’t depend on him to show up the next day.
    The homeless are not all victims of the system.  Some, like Rick,  get in their own way.

    • goldengreek says:

      Thank You Ginny for speaking up. Many would not have. There are always two sides to every story. Now we have the whole picture.

    • Rynski says:

      yes, ginny – thanks! for further info – very helpful and enlightening.
      how beautiful you tried to help – but even the best intentions, i’ve seen, cannot compete with addiction. not making excuses at all, just sharing things i’ve witnessed.
      thanks again! and surly stinks…

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