Median Income

Homeless people hawk three different publications on curbs all over the Valley. What's brought about the proliferation of street sheets, and who, if anyone, benefits?

The light turns red again and the cars queue up in eastbound formation. Chris and Michelle watch as a white Pontiac glides to a slow stop, window open, a woman's hand extended, dollar in her hand.

It seems a whole polo field away. Douglas, the war vet, is much closer, against a rock with his blue tropical vacation hat, transistor radio and an unopened bag of corn tortillas.

"Run," says Michelle.
Chris starts over there, but Douglas has already trotted to the car for the quick handout. The lady saw him first and vice versa. Chris comes back, upset. "Damn!" he says. "Because of my goddamn beer." Like he's ready to throw something. "I need a cigarette."

Michelle calms him and he reassumes the corner in a little while with his cup. She says, "Yes, he drinks, my boyfriend--he's an alcoholic--but he don't get in anybody's way."

Jerry, the Tom Petty look-alike, retires for the morning from his post peddling to traffic exiting Squaw Peak from the south. He's wearing a strikingly fresh tee shirt advertising a magazine.

"We all got one," says Michelle. Somebody came by, gave the whole clan tee shirts and jugs of water. "Everybody's wearing them."The shirts look good, an unsullied contrast to the tatters and undersize threads common out here. But they're just shirts, and they can only do so much."Put a shirt on a wino, and what do you get?" Jerry says. "A wino with a shirt." He flashes his grin.

Michelle frowns, unsure of how to take the comment. Jerry wanders to his spot by the wall and Michelle looks at him like don't come around here no more. She's got her pride. She says, "I ain't no wino."By now the torrid tale of the Grapevine is well-known--Princess (Leigh Butler) kisses frog (Joel Barr). Frog turns into prince. Princess supports prince's enterprise. Princess and prince fight over enterprise. Princess and prince break up and publish several competing versions of the Grapevine until princess washes her hands of the mess and founds her own paper, Southwest Solutions.What is not widely known, what has gone unreported until now, is that to complete an at-home interview with former flagpole ornament Joel Kenton Barr, one must endure a spirited rendition of a song he wrote called "The Tea Party Song." He accompanies the tune on guitar in the cluttered west-central Phoenix house/office of Grapevine editor Philip Janes, where he has lived ever since Princess Leigh banished him from the castle they once shared. The chorus sounds like a loaner from Jim Croce's "You Don't Mess Around With Jim."You don't dam up the Mississippi You don't quit after you begin You don't promise the world democracy And go back on your word again.

This is Barr's shtick, what his world revolves around, this obsession with democracy. According to Barr, democracy doesn't exist, at least not in the United States of America. He has figured out why ineffectual government curses the nation, why he lost his brother in Vietnam: because there are too many voters, and not enough time.Theoretically, see, if all those voters could be persuaded to voice their opinions to their lawmakers, it wouldn't matter because the legislators could never process all the information in time to vote the will of the people. So, true representative government is a myth.Barr's solution: the American Tea Party, the party he founded with the mission of making things right again. He proposes using technology, in the form of a 24-hour phone line, to allow folks to deliver their opinions whenever they feel like it. Newspapers could list the numbers and titles of bills being debated, as Barr did in the Grapevine during the last legislative session, three or four pages of fine-point type. That's one reason he founded the paper in the first place.

"People have to have that menu in front of them," he says. "They can always go get a Grapevine and vote on something."

A political gadfly who joined Mensa so that he could run for governor in 1990 against the Ivy League degrees of Fife Symington and Terry Goddard, he is a sort of flaky technowarrior, a self-proclaimed underdog barking at the big guys. He once operated a phone line called 1-800-THE-VOTE, which collected opinions from callers and then faxed them to legislators.

But he has also run afoul of the law. The state Corporation Commission fined him $122,000 for running what it called a bogus water-company scam that bilked people for unneeded utility work. About $15,000 of the solicited money had funded his phone line. Barr chained himself to the commission's flagpole when it ruled against him.

But all that started before the frog found the princess.
What began as a brief romantic involvement and quixotic mission, however, has since deteriorated into a sour exchange of verbal punches:

He sabotaged everything.
She did things behind my back.
I was paying all the bills.
She thought she owned the company.
I spent all the money I had.

Butler says the press run was too large, that there wasn't enough advertising to finance the growth. She argued that the price of the 50-paper bundles should be doubled to $10; Barr said any homeless guy who woke up with $10 in his pants was waking up with somebody else's pants. She upped the price anyway. The rift was complete.

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