Need a marketing spin, please help

San Francisco beggars give it some schtick.
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The Independent Culture
"SMILE IS my trademark," says Carlton Jordan, 46, a Vietnam veteran who seeks personal donations at the corner of Powell and Market Streets in downtown San Francisco.

Indeed, Mr Jordan, though not a big smiler himself, encourages grinning with his sign - which he holds and rotates about once every 10 seconds. On one side, it reads simply, SMILE on the other other: "Hi. Wife kidnapped. 79 cents short of ransom. Please help."

Jordan lost part of both legs stepping on a landmine in Vietnam. The leftleg is a "BK" (below knee) amputation, the right an "AK" (above the knee). He's no businessman and, despite his happy message, is actually a bit of a grump. (His response to one kindly woman who dropped by offering coffee: "What'd you buy that for, I don `t drink coffee - you'd have done better bringing.")

But Jordan, like most panhandlers in the US, understands the importance of a schtick - or trademark, as he likes to call it.

This isn't true everywhere. In France, for example, it is far more common to see supplicant beggars with outstretched hands and despairing faces with longing eyes. In Spain, panhandlers will often lie stomach-down on the pavement, arms outstretched, hands cupped, heads bowed or face-down. This would never go over in the States.

Why lie?

It's for beer.

After all, if, "the business of America is business", as President Calvin Coolidge said some 70 years ago, these profound words apply as much to panhandlers as anyone. To be successful, you must have some understanding of marketing and you have to hone your message. Begging is not easy anywhere, but in the mild and tolerant climes of San Francisco which presents a grail-like attraction to the homeless, competition is fierce. Outstreched hands alone won't cut it here.

Men late into middle-age, dressed in bedraggled army fatigues, carry signs that refer to their Vietnam service.

"Air Force Vet Needs work

Please Help Sober!" : -)

Carlton Jordan eschews this approach. "Why should I mention that?" he says. "No one gives a rat's ass about Vietnam anyway."

Jordan is so virulently against people looking for hand-outs based on their military service, he runs anyone using that approach off his prized downtown block. "Ain't nobody left round here saying they went to Vietnam, is there?"

Others take the long-term approach. Recently, a young panhandler, when politely rebuffed for a donation, responded as follows: "Don't be sorry, man. You have a nice day, now." Gulp. He made his investment and waited for the dividend; it came on my return trip from the Seven-Eleven.

Of course, there are many less entrepreneurial types on US streets. Frequently, it's the youngest - teenagers who ask for money looking neither much in need nor having a compelling rap to go with the request.

There are those few poor souls who have given up altogether, who leave a hat or an old paper cup on the street while they lie propped up against a wall.

But in general, it is well understood that if you want to bring in the dollars you have to stand out from the crowd - just like any business.

"Please help. Sandi and I are just trying to survive. God Bless."

The Sandi of the above sign is golden-haired dog with an intense dislike for skateboards. She's owned by a gentleman named Harry, 50, of Durham, North Carolina.

Harry's been on the streets for about three years, ever since arriving in California, and admits the dog is good for business. When Sandi's not around, Harry says donations fall by as much as 50 per cent.

Carlton Jordan is a realist. He's also smart. While he served his country in a long-ago war, he knows that doesn't evoke much sympathy these days.

Too many other people on the street claim to be down-and-out for the same reason.

"Brother, can you spare a dime? I can break a fifty."

Who knows if any of them actually served, who knows if any of the hard- luck stories are true? Jordan reckons only about half those who say they're sick with Aids, for example, actually have the disease.

One thing he does know is he wants his message to be positive. His sign is simple and powerful. On some days he switches to "Good Morning" or "Happy Friday" or "Welcome to Monday" on one side of his sign, but always,"SMILE" on the other.

It's his trademark, after all.