Friday, September 10, 2010

The Marketplace, Orwell’s Mistake, and Homeless Entrepreneurs

The Marketplace, Orwell's Mistake, and Homeless Entrepreneurs, ©2010 by Ken West

One thing we can take for granted is that in order to make an exchange in the marketplace of goods and services we must offer something of value. It’s fundamental to capitalism and to life itself.

George Orwell once commented on the hardships that a beggar encounters. Orwell wrote that a beggar works just as hard as someone pursuing a job, and that a beggar deserves remuneration.

With all do respect to Orwell, one of the great political thinkers and writers of the twentieth century, he had a socialist misunderstanding of basic economics. The missing ingredient in the case of the beggar is value. He offers no direct value for the money. He seeks alms, a handout, charity, without offering anything in return.

The fact that a person may work very hard at begging—standing or sitting for long hours in difficult circumstances—doesn’t make up for the fact that he offers no value. Of course, the person passing by may give the man money and feel good about his charity. But the beggar has not given anything in return, except perhaps a thank you.

Those who are homeless face this fact every day as they seek money to survive on the streets. Instead of begging, some try to offer value, such as holding a door open for people entering a store. Or they may get creative as a homeless acquaintance of mine did on the streets of Boston.

For the longest time he sat in the same spot near the corner of two busy city streets. He was a fixture there. Each day he would have a display of some sort set up to catch the attention of passers by. For instance, one day he had a signboard behind him congratulating Frank Sinatra on his 80th birthday. He had written down a short history of Sinatra’s career.

Other days, he would list all the famous people who had birthdays (and their age) on that day. He also had books of jokes that he had written down on every conceivable subject.

I developed a friendship with this man and would talk to him each day as I passed on my way to work. He’d ask me to give him a subject, such as politics, or baseball, and would then tell me a joke about it. He’d consult his books and come up with many jokes on the subject. Some were quite good.

He suggested that I tell his jokes at the office when I got into work. I’d usually give him pocket change or a dollar. He had given me a value in exchange. The world was a little better and more interesting because this man was there, pursuing his “trade.” He spoke openly about this being his work.

I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, so I was surprised one day to see that he didn’t have his usually display of interesting things. Instead, he carried a sign that read “Homeless, drug-free and sober.”

I asked him what had happened to his usual signs and interesting displays. He told me that a cop hassled him about it, asking him what he was selling, then demanding to see his vendor’s permit and sales tax log.

He told the cop that he wasn’t selling anything, but this officer of the law threatened to give him a ticket which would fine him for vending without a license. Yet holding up a sign saying “Homeless, drug-free and sober” was perfectly all right, since he was now obviously begging, not trying to offer anything of value to those who passed by.

I tried to convince him to go back to his displays and pick a new spot. But, he was now convinced that he was no longer a free man in a free country.

[For a related post, see "Homeless Entrepreneurs" at my Roadbrains blog: ]

Ken West, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, is the author of Get What You Want!, available worldwide on and other online booksellers. In the U.S. at

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Friar Tuck's Friend

Friar Tuck’s Friend, ©2010 by Ken West, all rights reserved

After a busy day at the bookstore on Washington Street in Boston, we’d go around the corner to Friar Tuck’s, a tavern on Province Place. It was crowded after five with everyone from the surrounding jeweler’s buildings and retail shops. The juke box was always going. The horseshoe bar buzzed with conversations about work, sports, sex, politics, and gambling.

We’d go over as a group of three or four, all minimum wage booksellers ready to drink beer and complain about our jobs. One night I found myself sitting next to some guy who worked in the Jeweler’s building. I had seen him before. He always had on a dark suit and tie, but didn’t look like a big-shot. He looked more like a mid-level kind of guy.

We struck up a casual conversation about the Boston Red Sox, but eventually moved on to the state of the economy and the world. We seemed to be in sync on many things. The beer helped. Meanwhile my fellow booksellers had drifted into other corners of the bar.

Friar Tuck’s was a place with many waves of patrons coming in throughout the day and night. The after-work crowd would be thinning out in a while. New patrons would be drifting in. I was still talking with the guy. He was married and had two kids. Lived out in the suburbs somewhere. He told me about his rich mother who lived in Connecticut. They didn’t get along very well.

Somewhere we crossed an invisible line in our conversation. We seemed to be verging on a potential friendship. Perhaps the beer was exerting its influence. Suddenly he began talking about what would happen next when we became friends.

He mentioned all manner of things, from inviting me and my wife over to his home, seeing each other after work, introducing me to his mother who visited now and then, talking on the telephone, going on trips together, chartering a fishing boat, going to football games… and his mental checklist went on and on and on. He was starting to scare me.

Friar Tuck’s bar crowd was thinning out. The next wave of drinkers hadn’t arrived yet. It was time for me to go home. My new “friend” was going to stay a bit longer, perhaps to contemplate the numerous things that must be done to transition to a full-blossoming friendship.

I avoided going into Friar Tuck’s for about three weeks. When I finally resumed going there after work, I was careful to avoid the part of the bar where the guy usually sat. I didn’t see him on my first week back. About a week later I saw him sitting in the same seat, thankfully conversing with someone else.

We never talked again.

Ken West, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, is president of Better Grip Media LLC and author of Get What You Want! Workbook… available worldwide on and other online booksellers. In the U.S. at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Patrick Henry Speaks to the Police

I was taking a Saturday morning class at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. It was a public speaking class and most of my classmates were police officers, both local and state. They were taking this course as part of their educational requirements for promotion. They were a friendly group, yet I had no doubt that they would handcuff me and shove me into their police cruisers if I were arrested. Most were big, strong, and formidable.

Our assignment for this particular Saturday morning was to recite a small portion from a famous speech. I had chosen the last part of Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. Most of the cops were not particularly gifted in their ability to do dramatic readings. Many tended to speak in monotones, as if giving a police report.

My turn came. I got up, walked to the lectern, and glanced at my speech. I had triple spaced it and marked it up according to its high and low points for voice inflection and volume. I was ready. I loved this speech.

I almost knew my lines by heart. I began reading, making sure that I looked out at my audience as if I were talking directly to them.

“They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary.”

Heads popped up. The tone of my voice and Patrick Henry’s words had their attention.

“But when shall we be stronger? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”

This normally boisterous group was silent and still. There was tension in the room. Patrick Henry’s words seemed to mesmerize them. I raised my voice and paused at certain key moments of the speech.

“If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery!”

My voice was rising. “Our chains are forged! Their clanking can be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come!”

I suddenly lowered my voice to a loud stage whisper. “I repeat it, sir, let it come!”

I had the rapt attention of my audience. They didn’t move a muscle except for a widening of their eyes. I paused to let the words sink in.

“Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace! Peace!’—but… there… is… no… peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms!”

I looked at the faces of these tough cops. They looked like deer caught in the headlights.

“Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God!”

I had the feeling that my audience was about to rise up. They seemed tense, but remained still. It was time for me to speak one of the most famous lines in American history.

“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

I said these last words making eye contact with one of the biggest and toughest cops. There was a pregnant moment of silence. Then everyone burst into applause.

Later, as the class was breaking up for the morning, the big and tough looking cop told me that my reading of Patrick Henry’s speech had given him goose-bumps. Some other cops standing nearby told me that it had the same effect on them.

It’s good to know that the power of well-chosen words, spoken with passion, can move people. Patrick Henry knew it, and delivered a burning fuse that ignited the American Revolution.

On that Saturday morning in Boston those cops and I felt just a momentary tremor of its power.


Ken West, a former U.S. Army Paratrooper, is the author of Get What You Want available worldwide on and other online booksellers. Ken is currently the program manager for an international training and consulting firm.