Faced with a long stretch of unemployment the vast majority of upstanding, college-educated people who live indoors, bathe regularly and use deodorant would find the prospect of turning to panhandling intolerable. The sheer degradation of it would frighten even the most thick-skinned human from even considering it.
But, as cruel as it may sound, the bleak prospect of resorting to handouts to make ends meet is not as completely out of the question for civilized folk as you might think.
Just ask Bruce Moody, author of the recently published “Will Work for Food or $—A Memoir from the Roadside.
Moody is the last person you’d think couldn’t figure out a way to keep off the median strip. A writer whose short fiction has appeared in the New Yorker and National Lampoon, Moody’s also published a novel, “The Decline and Fall of Daphne Finn,” and worked as an actor.
After a stint as a advertising copywriter where he moonlighted writing fiction, Moody decided he couldn’t be true to both disciplines and decided to quit advertising and only do general office work to support his writing habit.
This approach led to a comfortable office job that lasted nine years until he was summoned into his boss’ office and summarily fired. Pushing 60 and without any unemployment insurance (he had always worked as a contract employee), Moody suddenly found himself not just unemployed, but seemingly unemployable.
“Maybe I looked too old to be out of a job,” writes Moody. “Maybe people hiring wanted people younger than they were themselves. Maybe I looked like everybody’s father and they didn’t want him working under them. I went out on a lot of interviews. I went to reemployment classes and worked up ten resumes for different fields. No takers.”
With $4,000 saved, he continued to look for work and wrote a play about Christopher Columbus that went nowhere. Soon the money began to run out along with Moody’s optimism that he’d find another cozy office gig.
“There was another option and that was to be homeless. And I contemplated it and thought about it and prayed about it,” says Moody who now works as a gardener, writer and actor. “I tried doing temp work. I would go into the agency everyday and I would get jobs occasionally but in the old days you could go into an agency and get temp jobs that lasted six months or longer while you were getting yourself re-focused.
“At age 60 they didn’t want to hire me to drive the doughnut truck—which I would have been glad to do—‘cause they were going to have to let me go in five years” due to union retirement regulations.
On New Year's day 1993, during the country’s last recession, Moody turned to the unthinkable: holding up a hand-lettered sign proclaiming his sincere interest in working for either food or money.
His nondescript perch was the southbound Appian Way exit off of I-80 in Pinole, just a few minutes from his Crockett home and anyone who might recognize him. He stayed there for four months.
Still with a roof over his head, Moody took the meager contributions to his cause and the work opportunities graciously. On the advice of a panhandler he approached his new line of work as just that, work.
“Behave so as to be proud of yourself,” the beggar told him. “You think you’re a panhandler? But you don’t really know. Standing here on the roadside isn’t my story. So, whenever anyone gives you money, offer your service. Make that your story.” The man also instructed Moody to say “Bless you” to all he came in contact with whether they gave him anything or not.
Moody took the stranger’s words to heart. He didn’t just merely take money from passersby; he worked for them as well. In his run on the roadside, Moody painted and did gardening work for the people who stopped to speak to him—even if they tried to stiff him in the end.
Living frugally, he “managed to make the $750 a month necessary to eat and hold on to his apartment.
Every night after coming home Moody would jot down his thought s and impressions in a journal. The result is his memoir.
In the end perhaps the most important lesson Moody learned from his roadside sabbatical is that kindness is alive and well, especially in the Bay Area.
“Most people were really kind and the book is a testament and a tribute to the kindness and generosity of Bay Area people," says Moody. He was especially struck by the gifts of people in not much better circumstances than himself, folks he describes as being "very close to where I was."
“I caught a dose of kindness. Humiliation is the most fecund field for learning anything momentous in life,” says Moody. “I can give love to anyone. And everyone. And I do. I say “God bless you” to the freeway turnstile folks, to the checkout lady, to the gas station attendant, and I’d say it to the Queen of England if I met her. It’s the greatest gift any human can give another, and beggars are the ones who most frequently give it.”
Bruce Moody will be appearing at a writer’s workshop tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Berkeley Barnes & Noble on Shattuck Avenue. For more information, call 644-0861.