Michael Henry is no ordinary seeker of spare change. Not for him the hangdog look of many panhandlers. Not for him the jingling of coins in a can or the desperate, pleading placard.
Instead, Michael is a cheerful celebrity, known by name to the white-collar crowd that walks to work through Boston Common. He glad-hands like a politician. He works regular hours. He wears tidy clothes.
And he says his charm earns him about $15,000 a year.
Michael gives homelessness a name and a face. This is his shtick, and it works.
Witness the morning of his 39th birthday: Two young women lit candles on a chocolate eclair. A man dropped off a cake. Another man brought used suits. Eight different women gave him birthday cards. At least 40 people gave him money, and some gave him $5 and $10 bills.
Elizabeth Miller handed Michael $3 for his birthday and a post card from her recent trip to Canada.
“Thanks, doll,” he said, stuffing the dollars in his back pocket and rubbing his chin, shaved of his usual goatee. “Haven’t seen you for a while. Still have those cats?”
Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in cancer research at the Harvard School for Public Health, sometimes walks her cats on the Common.
“This is his job,” she said. “This is how he makes his money. He talks to you, he remembers things about you. Most of my neighbors give him money, too.”
For at least two years, Michael has been begging on the same corner of one of America’s oldest public parks. He understands that location is all: Business people walking from the chic residential areas of the Back Bay and Beacon Hill pass through the Common on their way to the city’s financial district.
Every morning between 7:30 and 9:30, he greets passers-by in his high voice, shaking their hands and making sure they know his name. His wide smile and throaty laugh are infectious. His clothes are neat, if slightly soiled. He calls the women “Moms” or “Doll,” the men “Pops” or “Bub.”
And the people who stopped to chat with Michael on his birthday breezed past a 28-year-old candidate for state representative, who was struggling nearby to hand out his flyers.
On a typical day, Michael said, he makes about $60. That adds up to about $15,000 a year--slightly less than the starting salary of a receptionist at a theater or a waiter at a downtown cafe.
“He’s got people trained,” said Margie Rizzuto, 36, a consultant in financial record-keeping who has known Michael for two years. “People walk by and they’ve got their money ready. It’s amazing.”
Some friends of Michael actually recruit other contributors. Linda Pulliam, a graphic designer for the Boston Financial Group, said she started giving money to Michael when office colleagues encouraged her.
A few people have become ambivalent about giving to Michael. They worry he might be spending his money on drugs or alcohol.
Some wonder if addiction is the reason he is homeless. Others speculate that Michael is illiterate.
But why someone as winning as Michael can’t or won’t get a job remains a mystery--and Michael himself provides few clues. He says he does not drink or take drugs, and he says he can read “a little.” He’s a longtime guest at the homeless shelter on Long Island in Boston Harbor, but he refuses to give the shelter permission to discuss his case.
His own story: He was born in Greenville, S.C. His uncle brought him and his mother to Boston when he was 5 to escape his father, an abusive alcoholic. He went to grade school in the South End and learned house-painting at a trade school. He had a stint as a dishwasher in the theater district 10 years ago.
And there, Michael’s story stops. He will not say how long he has been homeless. He said only that he begs because he likes the people he meets and the money he gets. He says he spends most of the money on food and clothes and has saved $3,000 in a bank account.
“Some of the guys tell me, ‘You should go start selling something.’ But I don’t know about selling something,” Michael said. “It’s like anything. People got things they do good at, and I think this is what I do good at.”
The week before his birthday, Michael prepped his people.
“You know what Aug. 10 is, right? Next Wednesday’s the day. You’ll be here, right?” he said to a man wearing a bow tie and a suit, who would not give his name.
On his birthday, the same man gave Michael $10.
“A $10 for the 10th,” the man called over his shoulder. “Next year, say your birthday’s the 20th, and I’ll give you $20.”
By 9:30 a.m., the end of his shift, Michael had received at least $100 cash. For lunch, he planned to treat himself to lobster.