Homeless, my butt.
Thanks to gullible givers, the shiftless brigade under Freya Way Bridge wouldn’t swap their life of grimy leisure.
And why not?
While Spokane’s working class fretted about frozen pipes, faulty furnaces and dead car batteries, here’s how the irresponsible bridge dwellers coped with last week’s record deep freeze:
Guzzling cheap Thunderbird wine on the public’s dime without a worry in front of a crackling blaze.
Next time your heart bleeds for a roadside beggar with a cardboard plea, think again. Before you reach for your wallet, remember Joshua and his freeloading pals.
“Two-hundred years ago, we were called mountain men,” explains the craggy-faced, bearded man who says he was born in 1934.
“Today we’re known as tramps. We’re the last free Americans because we don’t answer to anybody,” he adds with a defiant wave of both arms.
“We weren’t born into this family. We chose this!”
I spotted Joshua trolling for suckers one frosty morning at the corner of Freya and Mission.
He was a pathetic sight, dressed in a soot-caked parka, his breath steaming in the subzero air. Joshua faced oncoming traffic with two Labradors - Outlaw and Stupid - and clutched a homemade sign:
“Veteran and dog on the road,” it read. “Can you help?”
I had to stop. I handed Joshua a 10-spot and asked if he’d tell me about his misfortune.
The old pirate grinned and welcomed me beneath the gray concrete span. After a short hike, he introduced me to his buddies: John, 44; Mark, 28; Dead-eye, 47; and Candy, 39, the only woman in the bunch.
Within a few minutes the gang made it clear that they’d rather live on the bum. These dropouts wouldn’t join the real, 9-to-5 world if you offered them a lakefront condo.
“The only way I’ll quit being a tramp is when I’m six feet under,” says John. “I’ll probably die one of three ways: Cancer, cirrhosis or derailment.”
They live in a dirty setup of tents, scattered sleeping bags and a crude lean-to. At the center of the camp, a fire rages in a 50-gallon steel drum.
The tramps work the streets in shifts. The dogs are for protection and to evoke more sympathy and donations.
If Joshua and Co. put as much effort into honest work as they do bilking the public they’d probably be running the city in a month.
“Co-old?” scoffs John as he handed me a yellow bucket to sit on. “Naw, this is nothing. Once I was in Havre, Mont., when it was 70 below.
“I got hit by a car and I hadn’t had a drink in three days.” He laughs. “That’s what I get for being sober.”
They shun the missions and homeless shelters. Too many rules. Mutts aren’t allowed, they say.
Although they talk romantically about riding the rails, these latter-day hobos may have put down roots as deep as any taxpaying homeowner.
Truella Stone, who works at Moran Fence, 707 N. Freya, says she’s seen Joshua and John working the streets near the bridge for several years.
“People think they have no choice, that they’re homeless and poor,” she says, “but that’s not true. Around Christmas they must have been making $200 apiece. Half of Spokane brought them Christmas leftovers. It’s amazing.”
Stone has worked at Moran Fence 16 years. She says today’s tramps are more aggressive and violent. “I’ve seen drivers give these people coins and they’ll throw it back at them like it’s not enough.”
Take it from me, a man who has mingled with tramps. No social program in the world is going to pull a professional moocher off the road to nowhere.
“Ever heard a train whistle at night?” says the old pirate who lives under the bridge. “It goes, ‘Josh, Josh, Josh-uaah.’ It calls my name and I get on.”