By Scott Westerman
Over the last 72 hours, I’ve put 2300 miles on the horse. Albuquerque to San Antonio to East Lansing. I got in early this morning, hence the delay in sending you The Motivator Monday morning distribution.
Since I’ve been focused on keeping it between the ditches and have had my mind on travel, let’s turn back the clock to a piece I wrote in the Spring of 2006. I was a cable TV guy then, but the tale is just as relevant today as it was when it actually happened to me, back then.
This Spring, I traveled to Atlanta to attend the National Cable Telecommunications Association convention. Most travelers take the taxi from the airport to downtown, but since I was traveling on the largesse of the Company, a buck seventy-five MARTA ride felt more responsible than a twenty dollar cab fare.
And so it was that I emerged from the caverns beneath Peachtree Plaza, squinting into the afternoon sun, searching among the canyons of steel and cement for my hotel.
“Where ya headed?”
He was five foot nuthin and dressed in the somewhat ragged attire we used to discourage the kids from wearing in public. But he looked much older. Like the majority of my MARTA companions, his ancestors had likely been forcibly emigrated from Africa. He seemed to be without portfolio.
“Where ya headed,” he repeated.
“Can you tell me the way to the Marriott Marquis?”
“I can do better than that, follow me.”
His manner was friendly, almost as if he might even be a hotel employee.
“I’m Alan, and you are?”
“Where do you hail from, Scott?”
“Just in from Illinois,” I said. I felt slightly uneasy sharing too much information with this stranger.
“Welcome to Atlanta, Scott. Where in Illinois, Chicago, Peoria?”
“Don’t know it.” Alan eyed my wheeled suitcase and the plastic covering that protected my hanging attire. “You look like you’re here on business, Scott.”
“Yep, a convention.” I wanted to change the subject. “Tell me about yourself, Alan. What do you do in Atlanta?”
“During the week, I’m in the labor pool and on weekends I’m a homeless tour guide.”
A homeless tour guide. I remembered talking with some homeless folks in Chicago. They wore orange safety vests, and seemed to earn money picking up trash in the city parks. But this guy sounded like an entrepreneur.
“I appreciate the company,” I said. It was a stretch. I always like to find my own way, and like most middle class whites, my paradigms of the homeless made me uncomfortable getting too closely involved with someone who might have more interest in the content of my wallet than in the content of my character.
But Alan was undeterred.
“Your hotel is just around the corner. We’ll head down Harris and turn left. If it’s raining when you have to head back to the airport, there’s actually a covered walkway that takes you right to Peachtree plaza. What kind of food do you like to eat, Scott?”
I recognized this as one of the qualifying questions we teach our sales folks to ask whenever they were with a customer. Learn about their likes and you can tailor the product benefits to meet their special needs. It increases your chance of making a sale.
“I’m easy,” I said. “As long as it isn’t Mexican or too spicy.”
Alan launched into a detailed description of the key restaurants in the neighborhood, painting vivid word pictures of the ambiance, the specialty of the house and the price range.
By now we were at the hotel’s valet entrance.
“Here’s your hotel, Scott. Do you have any questions for me?”
It must be time for a tip. I opened my wallet and drew out a ten.
“I’ve really enjoyed our conversation,” I said. “Do you accept gratuities for this service?”
Alan looked offended. It was a well practiced act.
“I’m not a panhandler. I’m just a homeless tour guide trying to get off the street.”
Panhandling seemed to be a magic word. I had a vague memory of a news story about how Atlanta had recently enacted an ordinance banning the practice downtown. The ACLU was in the process of suing the City to stop its enforcement.
I pressed the Hamilton into Alan’s palm. “Well I hope this helps. Thanks very much for taking such good care of me.”
“How long you in town, Scott?”
“Here till Tuesday.”
“I’ll see you around.”
Alan sauntered off into the lengthening shadows. I watched him go and pondered the economic gulf that separated us, and the humanity we had shared for ten minutes that spring day. The law said he couldn’t simply ask for money anymore. But Alan had figured out a way around the obstacle, proof that even at the most fundamental levels of existence, necessity is still the mother of invention.