It was over in a matter of minutes.




A member of the planning staff, while on this way to meet with senior city officials, walked around Iron Mike and visually confronted three of the feared panhandlers that were the talk of the Plaza. Each was leaning against a backpack, playing with a puppy on a twine leash and seemed confident in their ability to out-talk and out-hustle anyone bent on interfering with their day's activities, whatever they might be. In this regard they could have been any of many business professionals working on a payday.




The staffer grabbed his cell phone and began to text message the police department, his thumbs flopping like wet blankets on smoke-laden fires that signaled a brew of trouble bubbling on the Plaza. The three in repose whipped out their cell phones in a blur and sent pre-written messages to nearby friends that the Man was gearing up for another swat of daily confrontation in the ongoing give and take that constituted the city's war against vagabonds, the landless, the homeless, the young, all of whom were perceived to be an unruly swarm that floated downtown on the back of broadband bandwidth that streamed invisibly throughout the supposedly tolerant town. Within a few minutes many who sleep under the stars had reached the Plaza to support each other in what soon became a strained situation.




Like any grouping of people it only takes a few, working overtime, to paint the whole with suspicion, distrust and, for the hard core, hatred. Combined with a few watch guard locals manning speed-dialing phones, it doesn't take much to magnify a careless comment into words of war, with the city trying to dodge controversy by playing musical benches, hide the fountain and various other forms of "Get Ye Gone."




In the late 1980's I was in conversation with a high city official. He mentioned that he knew of ongoing camping and cooking in the watershed, though felt that that the homeless needed to stay somewhere. I then owned the Historic Ashland Armory and the adjacent car wash. The city official, in an epiphany, suggested that the "highest and best use" for the Armory was not a performing arts center, rather it should be a shelter for the homeless and a soup kitchen. He then went on to suggest that the car wash should be converted into a bus and taxis stand, neither of which we had or have. He went on to suggest that both properties be generously donated to the city by this columnist, as he said every penny in the city's budget was earmarked for other, vital needs.




For generations anyone with a twinkle of mental dust has known about campgrounds in the woods and the very strong possibility that fire and water are the basics for survival. The fact of the matter is that sleeping in the woods was officially sanctioned as the first trains pulled into Ashland with illicit loads of penniless passengers, which then were called "hobos." Across the tracks from 8th and A Street a creek, lined with willow trees, slurped lazily through a hobo camp, which was at its height during the Great Depression. The hobos used chalk drawn shorthand runes to communicate where to get a meal, where to chop wood for a few cents and which houses were protected by large, unwelcoming dogs.




Text messaging has become the electronic chalk runes of times past, having the ability to bring together or divide, cut some slack or blindly enforce all laws. It all comes down to the classic line in Cool Hand Luke when Strother Martin, then later by a mocking Paul Newman, both say: "What we've got here is failure to communicate."




Lance was last seen with a ball of kite string and some tin cans, attempting to communicate with a neighbor across the street. One passing car later and his system was down for the count. As a back-up, email him at lance@journalist.com while he spins another yarn.