I watched a man take a leak the other day. But it’s not as weird as it sounds.
We’d just returned from vacation. Three jellyfish stings notwithstanding — trust me, the delayed itching and angry red welts are far worse than the initial electric shock — it was a big, relaxing time at the beach.
One free evening remained before the cold splash of workaday reality, and so we opted for a Friday night out downtown. Dinner and a movie seemed the exact right capstone to a great week.
The Xcaret Mexican Grill and Cantina on Fourth Street smelled great, so in we went. A table next to a glass wall overlooking an enormous mound of dirt that was once Merschel Plaza provided a perfect window for people watching.
Beers, chips and salsa arrived. And then it happened.
In full view of a crowded restaurant, a 40-something guy wearing acid washed jeans apparently couldn’t hold it anymore. He unleashed on the sidewalk directly below the glass. And everyone in the restaurant, including a district court judge dining with family, noticed.
“Dinner and show … Nice,” a woman seated at the next table blurted out.
Just the day before, a large headline on a prominent newspaper story alerted folks to another issue that fits hand-in-glove with this one.
"Panhandlers stir complaints. Email calls for city actions, and relocation of transit station"
The gist, in case you missed it, is that panhandlers working the downtown have become overly aggressive and too many in number. One suggestion floated would move the Clark Campbell Transportation Center and a drug treatment center … somewhere else.
“I’ve been shocked by the level of harassment I’ve experienced personally on Fourth Street coming and going from lunch meetings recently,” wrote Bobby Finch, a partner in Triad Commercial Properties, in an email making the rounds among downtown stakeholders.
Those would include elected officials, merchants, business leaders and cops, particularly the understaffed downtown bike patrol charged with policing such issues.
Jason Thiel, the president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, weighed in by saying that this summer, for whatever reason, has seen “a significant increase in aggressive panhandling.”
Finch, Thiel and other stakeholders aren’t wrong. But it’s hardly a new issue — here or anywhere else that’s reaping the benefits of downtown revitalization.
Panhandling, public bladder-control issues, loitering, trespassing, sleeping in parks and other so-called lifestyle crimes have been here forever. And so has the accompanying chorus of concerns.
Another, similar wave of complaints surfaced in 2013 when small business owners in the Trade Street arts district grew frustrated enough to raise their collective voice to ask for help.
“Somebody (defecated) on the patio,” Percy Snow, an owner of the Silver Moon Saloon, said on that June morning.
The then- owners of The Garage, which closed in 2017, had horror stories of their own.
“Everyone is kind of scared to say anything,” said Brian Cole in that same meeting. “Nobody wants to say anything bad about the homeless or the bus station. You get called racist if you do.
“And it’s not a racial thing. It’s an economic thing.”
Fast-forward to the summer of 2019. Six years have passed and the song remains the same.
Around and around we go
But what does a self-respecting and compassionate community to do? It’s not as if local officials — and by extension, downtown boosters, haven’t tried.
Remember the window sign campaign urging people to give to Samaritan’s Inn rather than individual panhandlers? That was in the early 2000's.
How about the grand-opening of the new $28-million Central Library in 2017? Library officials, sensitive to mean-spirited criticisms about it being an expensive day shelter for the homeless, prepped by snagging years earlier a grant to hire an outreach coordinator.
And elected officials have talked about lifestyle crimes for as long as I’ve been paying attention. City Council talked in 2002 about a panhandling ordinance. It enacted one in 2010 requiring beggars to get a license from City Hall. Even though panhandling, in and of itself, isn’t illegal.
Doing so in a “prohibited way” is. That includes being overly aggressive, asking for money while drunk or hitting up people who are dining outdoors, at an ATM or standing in line at a theater.
Judging by the circuit of concerns aired then and now, none of it has worked very well.
Cops do what they can. They know the troublemakers from the truly troubled. They move people along and write plenty of reports for such things as panhandling without a license, second-degree trespassing, public urination, sleeping in a public park, etc.
What happens after that is a joke. The Forsyth District Court handles such cases, and its amounts to an expensive revolving door.
Take, for example, a guy known on the street as Woody. I made his acquaintance in late 2013; Woody had run up 217 misdemeanors, all nonviolent, for such nonsense as begging for alms, trespassing and … soliciting without a permit.
Typically he’d spend a night or two in jail, plead guilty and get sentenced to time served. Spin, rinse and repeat.
Until and unless a deeper and more systemic approach to the root causes — untreated mental illness and substance abuse, homelessness, hopelessness and poverty — the concerns and complaints are bound to continue.
Until or unless we find the resolve to dig deep to really help people like Woody, spectacles such as the guy unleashing that impressive stream of urine right outside a nice downtown restaurant will be with us.
No one within eyeshot of that performance seemed shocked or surprised. “Looks like Winston-Salem really is a city now,” another diner remarked on an otherwise unremarkable Friday night.
Dinner and a show. Unless we choose a harder road, panhandling, public urination and the like will just be sad side effects that come with a booming and bustling downtown.