The bums’ rush

The late Leo Derderian, one of the last great Detroit characters — and one of its softest touches — owned the fabled and nefarious Anchor Bar. It had several incarnations, its latest now on Fort between First Street and Cass Avenue, and run by Leo’s son, Vaughn. Before that, it was the only thing open in the enormous old hulk of the Pick Fort Shelby Hotel on Lafayette, where I misspent a great deal of my youth.

Leo had a deep affection for people on the suspect side of life — drunks, felons, pimps, whores, dopers, cops, politicians, bankers and even newspaper people. He took care of us in a lot of ways, handing out information, booking our bets, carrying our tabs and even cashing our checks on payday morning, when there were nearly always two or three mailmen at the bar, drinking their breakfasts.

If you didn’t make good on a debt, Leo cut you off and spit brimstone at you. Unlike a couple of other downtown bar owners at the time, he never broke kneecaps, as far as I know.

Especially in the last years, when his health was failing, Leo liked to sit in the sun on a chair outside the Anchor’s door, drink coffee, hassle the foot traffic and rattle a few coins in a plastic cup. Because he was usually as raggedy as those who hung out in his joint, a few people actually dropped cash in his cup. It was a little larceny. He liked to keep his hand in.

One day, as I stopped to take some grief from him for something, a young guy wandered up and asked for a handout — he was short on bus money, and could use a meal. Leo rose up, got his old mug right up in the kid’s face, and started screaming at him, cussing him out like he invented it. The whole time he was chewing on this guy, Leo peeled one bill after another off the wrist-thick roll of currency he always carried, and dropped them in the beggar’s outstretched palm. And as he cranked up the intensity, a thin red line of blood trickled from his nose.

“Leo,” I said, “turn it down, you’ve busted a gasket.”

He swiped at his lip with the back of one hand, glanced at it, and yelled, “Goddamn it, I hate it when they lie. Just tell the truth. I’ll help y’out.”

I thought immediately of that improbably sweet old man while reading that Minneapolis is considering a law that would require panhandlers to be licensed by the city and wear a photo ID around their necks while begging, on the theory that it would make them less aggressive.

I work in Greektown, and on most days the panhandlers outnumber the tourists. One, I suspect, has a lot to do with the other. Many of us are torn, of course, when we get hit up by someone with a good story, even knowing it has to be a lie. Many others of us are naive and give freely to the “jobless” guy who needs bus fare “to get my wife and kids back to Pontiac,” not realizing he has a job — professional panhandling.

I once stood in a Monroe Street store behind a guy I recognized from the street as he tried to talk the clerk into selling him a lottery ticket even though he was 25 cents short. No sale. Five minutes later, a block away, he hit me up for a quarter because he was “hungry.”

In Detroit, bumming is gainful employment. Licensing might help us sort out the pros from the truly needy, then make charitable choices without so much angst. It could be tricky to enforce, but there’s a city department that could handle it brilliantly, the only one that performs its task with almost supernatural efficiency.

License the bums, and let parking enforcement write the tickets.

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