homeless street musician placed 4th for mayor in 1997 FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 30 May 1998 00:02:23 -0700 (PDT)


=46WD  1997  http://shell.rmi.net/~jkelin/earl.html
     CC Replies to author John Kelin jkelin@rmii.com (John Kelin)


     EARL AND THE PARK
     by John Kelin


On warm days, Earl can be found in front of a bookstore across the street
from a park that serves as a sort of town square, in the midsized western
city he lives in.

He strums a guitar and sings songs of his own composition, and talks to
passersby. A long list of song titles is scotch-taped to the top of his
guitar. It once bore a sticker reading, "This Machine Kills Fascists" ---
an h=F3mage, apparently, to Woody Guthrie. But the sticker has been peeled
off.

Earl's guitar case lays open on the sidewalk. It contains the harmonicas he
sometimes uses to accompany himself, in the keys of G, C, D, and A. It is
also a repository for money --- mostly quarters and single dollar bills. He
does not ask for money --- an important point --- but people get the drift,
and give. He is asked to make change sometimes.

Earl is homeless by choice, and in a sense, by vocation. He does not fit
the homeless stereotype, being clean-cut and well-educated. Oftentimes he
stays with friends, but sometimes sleeps in his pickup truck. He has been
playing his songs in the streets for many years, mostly in one town, but
has ventured as far away as Toronto, and up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

"All adults are a little bit crazy," Earl says. "You can't help but be
affected by all the different inputs around you in society, whether it's
the food you eat --- which, God knows what's in it --- or the air you
breathe, or the electronic waves that we're all swimming in, from
television and radio and microwaves."

Maybe the police were a bit crazed by electronic waves, the day they moved
against Earl. It was an otherwise pleasant autumn afternoon. After
complaints from nearby merchants that he was begging for money, he was
arrested. The cops grabbed him right in the middle of his song, "In the
Meantime."

       I'll set some goals and attain them
       I'll make all my dreams come true
       But in the meantime
       I'll just drive my truck around...

The cops put him in back of a squad car for about forty-five minutes while
they figured out their next move. People began to gather. "There was a
pretty good crowd of my supporters who were, like, dumbfounded that the
police actually arrested me," Earl recalled. He was issued a citation and
court date. The owner of the bookstore wrote letters of support. The ACLU
stepped in, and ultimately the charges were dropped. "It was a freedom of
speech issue," Earl maintains.

The town square across from where Earl plays fulfills a number of
functions. It is where twentysomething GenXers skateboard on sidewalks
criss-crossing the park. A Farmer's Market is held there during summer
months, and the local Gay Pride celebration. It is the location of an
annual Hemp Festival, jazz and folk music concerts, and fundamentalist
Christian events. Children play in a small playground area.

It is also a place where homeless men and women congregate. Many of these
do fit the homeless stereotype. Broken-down men in winter coats sit on park
benches on hot summer days. Others sleep soundly on the park's well-tended
lawn, oblivious to the sunshine. There are occasional fights and a certain
degree of cautious, usually polite panhandling.

There are, by one estimate, more than a thousand homeless people in Earl's
town at any given time. Availability of beds in local shelters is limited,
so when night falls many stay under bridges, in makeshift tents or
cardboard boxes, in cars, vacant buildings --- wherever and in whatever
they can find. Their presence makes the town's upstanding citizens nervous,
and has led to a growing effort, in the vernacular, to crack down on them.
Some might call it sweeping a problem under a rug; others might call it an
attempt to drive an unwanted element out of town. Earl says bluntly, "They
were trying to implement a California police tactic called zero tolerance."

The term "police brutality" has been used to describe police tactics used
in dealing with some who gather in the park. The phrase was on many lips
following the arrest of a teenager who had fled a nearby juvenile detention
center. According to some witnesses, the fifteen-year-old was doused with
pepper spray and physically restrained when he resisted an officer's
attempts to detain him. A crowd of about fifty gathered. "In this case," a
police spokesman said later, "the officer was trying to use restraint and
not hurt the kid." The kid was blue in the face and bleeding from the nose.
The cops drove their cars right into the park in pursuit of the teenager.
"They maced him and brought him to the ground."

At the time of these events, the mayor of Earl's town had been in office
for about twenty years. "Mayor Bob," as he was affectionately known, was an
old-school conservative, a staunch Republican blind to his own biases. A
black business executive scoping out the city for a possible relocation
asked him about its minority makeup, and Mayor Bob replied, "If you throw
in the Indians, it's about 2%. And that's since you showed up." The actual
number was 9.1%.

But Mayor Bob was growing weary of his job. After he "thought and prayed
for a long time," he decided to resign, even though he still had two years
left on his term. A former City Council member said Mayor Bob was by this
time presiding over a city much different --- much more progressive ---
than it was when he first took office.

Earl was undergoing something of a metamorphosis at this time, taking an
increasingly activist role in local issues. "The day after I got arrested,
Mayor Bob resigned from office," he recalls. "And I said, 'Oh!
Synchronicity! Serendipity!' Whatever you want to call it. It was like,
'I'm gonna run for mayor.' " His only previous political experience was
holding the presidency of the 4-H club in the upstate New York town he grew
up in.

"We kind of convinced him that he was the breath of fresh air that needed
to stay around and open his mouth on the corruption that was going on in
our City Council," said an organizer for a homeless advocacy group, with
which Earl had become associated.

His entry into the mayoral race was announced at a press conference held in
back of a restaurant/bookstore complex. "It was a blast!" Earl said later.
The media showed up, and Earl played his campaign song, which had the
repeated refrain, "Bob's out, Earl's in/This is where the revolution
begins..." He vamped in the middle and sang out the planks of his platform.

A flier was produced. On its front was his campaign slogan: "This town
doesn't need a mayor, it needs an Earl." Beneath this was a photo of Earl
playing guitar. His "This Machine Kills Fascists" sticker was in plain
view, and another one reading "All One People." The all-inclusive idealism
suggested by this latter sticker was detailed in the flier's text, in
phrases like "This campaign is all about the rights of people...the rich,
the poor, the weak, the strong, the able, the disabled, the black, the
white, the young, the old ... everyone."

A somewhat bemused local media ran only semi-serious articles about him, at
first: "Candidate Sings a Different Tune in Local Politics. You don't find
many candidates for political office playing guitar on a downtown sidewalk.
But Earl ... is no ordinary politician..." "Legal troubles have ended more
than one politician's career. Now we have a mayoral candidate named Earl
=2E.. whose entry into politics actually stemmed from a run-in with the
law..."

Paul Harvey, the nationally syndicated radio commentator, heard of Earl's
campaign, and gave it some airtime on one of his broadcasts. He said that
Earl "can't make ends meet ... the money he collects as a street musician
was barely enough for food ... and now he's been busted for loitering ...
and handouts won't feed him ... But Earl has his eye on a job which he
figures will. He's going to run for Mayor."

Now here's the rest of the story: Earl was running against four other
candidates. Three of them were insiders, holding seats on the City Council.
Of these three, one was beholden to the local business community. Still, he
gained the endorsement of the supposed liberal, alternative press --- which
also editorialized that certain aspects of his candidacy made them "want to
puke." Another candidate was a far-right-wing conservative of the so-called
"patriot" stripe. A third had been on Council for twelve years but lacked
"a coherent vision of where our city should be heading," according to local
observers.

The last candidate was a cab driver who, like Earl, was given no chance of
winning.

Two main issues Earl hammered on were those of police harrassment, and the
linked questions of homelessness and affordable housing. "I really stuck to
those issues throughout my campaign, in belief that it would raise the
consciousness of people in town," he told a journalist several months after
the election. "Just because people are a little down on their luck, or have
a few problems that they need to deal with --- it doesn't mean that the
best solution, for them, is to be arrested, or thrown in jail, or run out
of town."

Throughout the campaign, Earl continued to sing his songs in front of the
bookstore across from the town square. This was a necessity, as he had no
other source of income and, for ethical reasons, was accepting no campaign
contributions.

His increased visibility as a mayoral candidate did not necessarily result
in more donations for his playing. He would average about twenty dollars a
day, and as much as sixty on a good day.

Sometimes people would slip money into Earl's guitar case when he wasn't
looking. Other times, a child might be given the task. One day a man who
passed Earl nodded a greeting and placed a five dollar bill into Earl's
open guitar case. "It's to make up for all those times I just walked by,"
he explained, as he continued down the sidewalk.

The campaign made great demands on Earl's time. There were no formal
debates between the candidates, but there were forums in which the public
had the opportunity to question the candidates. "I probably attended twenty
of them, at least, during the month of March."

The election was held on April Fool's Day. It was a day unlike any other
Earl had known, beginning with a trip to a polling place for the unique
experience of casting a vote for himself.

By early afternoon, though, he had begun feeling poorly. Before long he was
hospitalized in excruciating pain. The doctor said he was passing a kidney
stone. "They did some tests on me, x-rays, to make sure there were no
blockages." None were found, so he was released by late afternoon. A few
hours later he went to a small restaurant where he had begun hosting an
open-mike night, but didn't feel well enough to stay for long. He paid no
attention to election returns and didn't know the results until the next
day.

Earl recieved 1,342 votes --- 2% of the 25% voter turnout --- enough to
secure a fourth-place finish. The winner was the 12-year City Council
member who lacked a coherent vision of where the city was headed.

Spring passed to summer. The issues that drove Earl's campaign remained
unresolved and in an apparent state of limbo. Because homeless people
remained without homes, the housing coalition Earl was associated with
stayed active, staging a rally dubbed the "Parade of Homeless" in the park
across from the bookstore where Earl usually played.

Earl emceed the event, playing eight or nine songs and introducing various
speakers. He urged attendees to register to vote. The rally was intended as
a mirror event to the "Parade of Homes," a showcase of expensive new digs
staged by a builder's association. Members of this association, its critics
said, did not build enough affordable housing, thus contributing to the
problem of homelessness.

Earl is looking ahead to the next election. He expects to try for mayor
again, or perhaps a seat on the City Council. "It was a learning
experience, definitley, to run for mayor," he reflected, several months
after it was all over. "And it was also a learning experience as far as my
standing up against the powers that be --- that it can be done, and it can
be done
successfully."

During the course of the campaign, the candidate who lacked vision had
asked Earl if he would like to sit on her advisory board if she won. Four
months later she had not followed up on the offer --- one that Earl said he
would definitely be interested in. "Oh, shoot yeah! I'm gonna be an
activist, and I'm gonna take part in community things --- whatever they may
be. To be an advisor to the mayor would be great."

* * *

Lyrics from "In the Meantime," Copyright =A9 by Earl Janack, used by permiss=
ion.

"Earl and the Park," Copyright =A9 1997 by John Kelin

EPILOG - 27 May 1998

Tom,

=46eel free to forward the story.

You might be interested to know that since writing it, Earl has
gotten married and last I knew was looking for a "legitimate" job.
He and his wife are expecting a kid soon. He is no longer homeless,
and I do not believe he plans to sing and play in front of the
bookstore this summer, although you never know.


John Kelin

END FORWARD




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