Growing up in the inner city, it seemed that every neighborhood joked about a local – always male – who was amiably alcoholic, never worked for long, and was more or less happily homeless, having both worn out his welcome with relatives and having learned to enjoy the hobo life. “Good old Bubba,” an adult would always say with wry amusement as someone reported having seen him in the polite huddle outside the liquor store. “Smart as a whip. Coulda done anything he wanted but just look at him. Oh well, ‘least he don’t bother nobody,” the threadbare refrain would go.
The “Bubbas” had survival down to a science: They never seemed drunk though they probably were; they sat a lot. Their bottles were “disguised” in paper bags and those bags were never sipped from in plain sight. Bubba didn’t panhandle and harassed no one, especially women and children; he’d have been punished. Whatever crime he committed, he did so as invisibly as he drank. (Bill Cosby has a routine about these characters, but YouTube isn’t cooperating. Richard Pryor experienced a very different type of Bubba, but how else did he become Richard Pryor?) No one was afraid of Bubba, and, looking back on it, I’m pretty sure the local businesses and adults most likely gave him inconspicuous donations of food and spare change; how else did he survive?
I thought of Bubba today for the first time in decades because of what he was most famous for: spending the entire summer, so legend had it, dreaming up the perfect petty crime, the one that would see him incarcerated in the county lock-up just as the weather turned crisp and freed from it just as it warmed. The story was embroidered enough that the beat cops and jail workers wagered on which crime and which day.
I think a lot of the adults, the men anyway, envied Bubba just a little, but not even the canniest Bubba could pull that balancing act today. Now, Bubba would find that homelessness has been criminalized, street thugs would terrorize him, and he likely couldn’t work even if he wanted to. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing the Return of Bubba: A 59-year-old North Carolina man, James Verone , who robbed a bank of $1 because he lost his job of 17 years, can’t survive on the part-time wages he’s been able to find and can’t do the work anyway because of his health, for which he needs medical care (something’s protruding from his chest ). So, Bubba alerted the media the day before, politely robbed a bank clerk of $1 (and frightened her into the E.R., it must be said) then waited quietly to be arrested. Only in America, right? Verone has thought it all through and sums up his aim thusly: “he plans to spend a few years in jail, before getting out in time to collect Social Security and move to the beach.” I doubt a sadder epitaph will be written to encapsulate America’s willful decline.
Bubba chose to aim low, to eschew work (in a time of high-paying factory and public sector work for the uneducated). All James Verone gets to choose between is life without needed medical care and life without his freedom. Sad to say, while Bubba, for all his “charms,” was a weakling and a loser by choice, James Verone, bank robber, must be counted as a brave and determined man, one willing to do whatever it takes to survive America’s winner-take-all class system.