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Two Beans, one dollar and a homeless guy


It was the sort of scene I can’t walk past: A muttly looking dog, a white-bearded homeless guy and a handmade cardboard sign offering: “Dog Tricks 1$.”

On the sidewalk along Franklin Street — the main drag in Chapel Hill — Mark Williams, after offering me some room on his bench, said he and his dog, Two Beans, have been homeless for about a year. “Work’s kind of slow now” in the construction /handyman/odd jobs field, he explained.

The dog trick — Two Beans knows only one — helps rake in enough money for meals.

I’d gone to Chapel Hill for a meeting of the Board of Advisers of the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an esteemed panel on which I still serve, despite having left my most recent newspaper job a year ago, and despite — other than doing some revisions on the book I left the business to write, and writing this website — being unemployed.

Twice a year at UNC, members of the board gather to hear what the school is up to in terms of research, fund-raising and curriculum changes, which are coming pretty fast and furious nowadays as the industry, facing declining profits, continues to try to pull new tricks out of its hat, or in some cases get a whole new hat.

This meeting was a special one because it’s the journalism school’s 100 birthday — a benchmark the university’s basketball program also hit this year. That’s pretty old, but there are older journalism schools, I learned during the festivities, such as the highly respected one at the University of Missouri, which was the nation’s first.

DSC06777Getting ready to pick up my dog Ace (who I’d dropped off for a bath during the meeting) and leave town, I was walking down Franklin Street. Doing that always triggers memories of my days as a student. Thirty-four years ago, I was getting ready to graduate with my degree in journalism, and I was sending job applications to newspapers across the country. I used the seventy-some rejection letters I got then to wallpaper my room.

It dawned on me that, today, I’m in sort of the same situation — job hunting, getting a few rejections, and much more often getting no response at all. At least in the good old days they sent you a form letter. Today, many companies often don’t even bother to acknowledge receipt of your application. While students are still finding jobs, the journalism job market — like journalism — seems tighter, shallower and meaner than ever.

So bleak, in fact, that when I saw Mark Williams’ sign, I ever so briefly considered getting my own piece of cardboard, picking up my dog and setting up shop on the next bench down, offering higher-priced, upscale dog tricks (the Starbucks approach) for $5 to cover gas for my trip home.

Two Beans’ trick requires a dollar bill. Having only a $10, I asked Williams if that would work. He pocketed the ten dollar bill and pulled from his other pocket a crumpled one dollar bill. “Now go back in that alley and hide it somewhere, and Two Beans will find it.”

I wedged the bill behind a drainpipe, about waist high, and sure enough, Two Beans, when I called, came around the corner sniffed around, pulled it out, and brought it dutfifully to his master.DSC06809

Williams got the dog from a friend, shortly before he began a stretch of life on the streets. He named him Two Beans, he said, because the dog — a golden retriever-Rhodesian ridgeback mix, he suspects — is not neutered. Williams said police don’t give him any trouble about his street business. “They’d rather me do this than just be panhandling like these other guys,” he said.

In addition to providing some income — as much as $70 a day when there’s a home football game — Two Beans makes life on the streets “a little less miserable,” Williams said. He said teaching Two Beans the trick cost him $3, because the dog ate the first three dollar bills

As we sat and talked, Williams, originally from Greenville, N.C., revealed that he once wrote a book about dog training. It was only 20 pages and, so it wouldn’t cost him much to mail it out, weighed only an ounce. “It was basically plagiarized, and not very good.” He took out an ad in the National Enquirer, offering the mini-book for sale for $3.  He says he only sold two copies, one to a customer in Virginia Beach, another to a customer in Acapulco — making him, he joked, an “international author.”

When he learned I was a former newspaper reporter, Williams revealed that his family was in journalism as well: His grandfather, Walter Williams, founded the journalism school at the University of Missouri.

“That’s the nation’s first journalism school,” I said.

“Yup,” he answered.

Coincidentally, I’d also recently applied for a job there, in my continuing quest to sniff out writing/teaching/multi-media positions. I received an emailed rejection, one of at least a dozen so far.

I don’t print out my emailed rejections. They don’t have the cool logos on them that I once found decorative enough to serve as wall art. I think I also take them a little more personally, now that I have experience and credentials. So I won’t be using them as wallpaper — either the kind you put on your wall, or the kind on your computer.

Instead, I’ll keep plugging along, like Williams, and waiting for the better times I keep hearing are ahead.

Until then … dog trick, anyone?


Comment from susan
Time October 20, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Okay, that is a really great trick in an otherwise sad story. Good luck with the job hunting. I’ve been in that same boat for a couple of years now that photographers are (quite literally) a dime a dozen.

Comment from Carey
Time October 21, 2009 at 8:36 am

John, if you’re going to be in that area again, please let me know. I’ll have a care package for you to take down there 😉

Comment from HOB
Time October 21, 2009 at 11:53 am

This is a great story.

Comment from Miss Jan
Time October 21, 2009 at 12:30 pm

I am so glad this gentleman is doing everything he can to keep his dog with him despite his awful and sad situation. In some areas of the country there is now more help for homeless pets (e.g., pets of the homeless and severely destitute on the verge of…). I will always donate if I see someone with a dog or other pet (around here in Oregon we see a lot of ferrets and cats in these situations). But in addition and I hope others will see this and think about it too – in a weather-challenged climate it helps to collect where possible,or buy where possible, dog coats in varying sizes and hand them out. Waterproof is good if a wet+cold climate! I have suggested to several rescues that a “dog coat drive” would be a good idea, as just one person I’m not making much of a difference as I too am somewhat financially challenged and just doing what I can in a limited way. I would also like to see some of the food banks that do human-coat-drives also collect dog coats and distribute.

John I enjoy your blog tremendously and did not realize you were not still an employed columnist. Please consider teaching your blogging skills including how to make at least some money blogging via sponsors, ads, etc., at perhaps the local community colleges. This is a big mystery to some, and I think you would find you’d get a lot of students.

Miss Jan and sidekick JRTs Gus and Wally
Harrisburg, Oregon

Comment from Eighteenpaws
Time October 21, 2009 at 5:37 pm

JW, I read this blog around 6pm Tuesday, and it has haunted my Tuesday night dreams and then my Wednesday mightily. I’m certain that I speak for many when I say that I deeply enjoy when you write from the heart and tell some of your own (and Ace’s!) “tales,” and when you make note that a particular blog is your own opinion. March on! This is what blogs are all about! (I think.) You never take a story and not re-tell it without your own unique flair. Pulitzer still sweats in your palms, no matter how much you may stray and sniff. Very sorry about the frustrating job search, but I know that you will find your niche somewhere, somehow, soon….and meanwhile, your dedicated readers never want to see you depart this simply inspiring and very educational blog. THANKS!

Comment from Eighteenpaws
Time October 21, 2009 at 7:52 pm

A blurb from Harrisburg, Oregon??!!
Ahem, need I state more?? How GREAT!!Do ya ever wonder how they found you?!
Strokes for both Ace and his keeper!!!
We jus’ gotta love it all…..Go John!

Comment from Maryanne Dell
Time November 6, 2009 at 11:02 am

Is this Jenny’s husband? Jenny and I worked together at the Register … eons ago. Like you, I was laid off a year ago. Been training dogs and contemplating the future, along with getting no response to job queries. Quite a changed industry we once inhabited. Tell Jenny hi from Maryanne and, if I’m wrong on who you are… sorry. But great story — dog’s noses are amazing — and good luck.