Do the Right Thing

Since I started smoking on the steps of my NYU dorm near Washington Square Park several years ago, countless homeless people have asked me for change, cigarettes, food, and whatever else I might give them. Some know that a smoker is a captive audience, who will almost surely hear them out as long as his cigarette is burning. Others just want to take whatever you’ll give them, then move on to the next mark as quickly as possible. One man in particular stands out in my mind.

Devin Smith was always one of the neighborhood regulars, stopping people on the street or approaching them on the corner to ask, “If I tell you a joke, can I earn some change?” I would see him whenever I was smoking outside, be it in front of my building, in the park, or in between classes.

Eventually, I felt like I got to know Smith enough from our brief encounters that I wanted to write a full profile of him. At that point, though, I didn’t even know he was homeless. He was a well-dressed man who just chose to tell jokes on the street, I thought, and I figured he must earn enough change to make a living. So about a year ago, when I was smoking a cigarette outside Bull McCabe’s, a bar on St. Marks Place, and Smith happened to walk by and start telling his jokes, I decided I needed to learn more. This is his story:

Do the Right Thing: The Odyssey of Street Comedian Devin Smith

A group of college students meanders through Washington Square Park, talking among themselves as they enjoy the first truly beautiful day of spring. Suddenly, a short black man jumps into their midst.

“Guys, sorry I’m late. If I make you laugh, can I earn some change?”

“Oh, you gonna tell us a joke?” one of them asks. “Alright.”

The Joke Man leaps into his routine, struggling to hold their attention with a few racially charged jokes while they roll their eyes or look away. His smile and manic energy are infectious, though, and within moments he has them laughing and reaching into their pockets. They walk away as he examines his earnings.

“Two fifty,” he sighs. “I got two dollars and fifty cents from the six of them. I’m not really feeling it today.”

He is a Greenwich Village fixture, this Sammy Davis, Jr. look-alike who bounces from neighborhood to neighborhood, passerby to passerby, hustling to earn enough spare change to survive on the streets of New York. Nearly everyone in the park recognizes him, but almost no one knows his name.

Devin Smith is homeless, and he tells jokes to survive.

“The things that I have in my life, I get based on other people’s idiosyncrasies,” Smith says. “And there’s no counting on it. That’s it, there’s no option. If you laugh, I eat. End of story.”

A few years ago, Smith was sleeping in a Port-O-Potty on a former Astor Place parking lot (which is now a luxury penthouse apartment building) when it started to rain. He says that he began to cry, and he cried so hard that he eventually started to laugh.

“I recognized that I could have a pity party – poor me, poor me, poor me – or I could literally get up off my ass and make other people laugh,” he says. “And by making other people laugh, I don’t cry. If you make someone laugh, you change their life, even if only for a moment.”

At the end of the day, as others go home to a warm bath, a fresh pair of socks or a comfortable bed, he sleeps on a park bench or in a subway car. His feet are raw and blistered from his travels.

He recites his mantra: “I’m 45. Thank God I’m still alive.”

Not only is he still alive, but he has become a favorite among the sidewalk bar and restaurant crowds of downtown New York. Even though they may not all know his name, nearly everyone in the neighborhood has seen him or heard him tell a joke. Generally, his material consists of one liners or pun-laced punch lines, based on the difference between white and black people or, more often, the differences in their perceptions.

“I give people the opportunity to have their own window of laughter,” Smith says. “With me, say whatever the hell you want to say. You want to be racist, be racist. I don’t give a fuck.”

When people ask him how he can stand to so blatantly degrade black people to get a buck, he laughs with a tired chuckle.

“Let me tell you something. If I had a gun, or a knife – if I was robbing, stealing or begging – I think I’d be degrading black people a little bit more than if I was just telling a fucking joke. I mean, let’s be realistic here. I’m laughing at society.”

Gem Carter, 21, is the host of a public access punk rock show and a bartender at Mars Bar, a dive on the corner of 1st Street and Second Avenue. Smith will often stop by to talk as he makes his rounds, but like many of the bar’s patrons, Carter knows him simply as “D.”

“He’s the Sammy Davis guy!” she exclaims. “I’ve only seen him a couple times, but he’s funny. He can turn it on, and he can take whatever people throw at him. He’s just so funny.”

Ray Bell, 54, is a longtime Mars Bar regular. He sips from a Styrofoam cup full of red wine while he leans on a stool against Mars Bar’s graffiti-covered walls.

“He’s a good kid,” Bell says. “He’s better than some of these other drunk guys that come in here. They tell the worst jokes I’ve ever heard, shit. They’re all trying to become fucking comedians.”

Bell, who looks like the tanned and leathery younger brother of late actor Jerry Orbach, says that he has known Smith for about a year.

“Yeah, he asks me for change sometimes,” he says. “But usually we just trade jokes back and forth. I tell better jokes than Devin anyway. How ’bout this one? A guy walks into a bar…”

* * *

Smith’s typical daily route takes him on a walking tour of downtown Manhattan: from the Lower East Side to the East Village and the always-bustling St. Marks Place, where he stops at the Dallas BBQ on Second Avenue to get some food (“I usually tell jokes for leftovers”).

Tony Shaub, 41, a waiter at Dallas BBQ, on the corner of St. Marks Place and Second Avenue, has heard Smith tell jokes to his customers for a few years, and says that as long as the comedian doesn’t bother people, he likes having him around and gives him food whenever he can.

“He’s working,” Shaub notes. “Anybody who’s working deserves to be earning money. He’s not like the other bums asking for change. He’s funny. I like him. He’s one of the local entertainers.”

Then Smith moves from St. Marks Place to Astor Place, from Astor Place to Union Square, from Union Square back to Astor Place and Broadway, stopping at as many bars, restaurants and street corners as he can along the way to find his audiences.

Smith walks from Broadway to Washington Square Park, where he makes the rounds of the park area before heading south down MacDougal Street to find sidewalk audiences at Off the Wagon, Café Wha? and Groove. He circuits Greenwich Village, grabs a slice of pizza on Bleecker Street, and makes his way to the West Village.

After hitting the bar crowds in the West Village, Smith usually comes back to Washington Square or the East Village before again heading north to Union Square or “any other square you got.”

On a good day, Smith can earn $100 or more telling jokes, earning a quarter here, a dollar there. Some people have even given him $100 themselves, or a bite to eat, or a place to spend the night.

“Last time I checked,” Smith says, “there were eight million people in New York City. Maxed out with tourists that’s about 13 million. If I make 100 people laugh, and they each give me one dollar, I make $100 a day, $700 dollars a week. Where else do you want me to work?”

Smith says that his appearance is very important to him, and he is careful not to look the part of a homeless beggar. He shops at the Salvation Army and other thrift stores, where a new pair of walking shoes costs $10 and a blue Donna Karan button-down shirt can be found for $3. But when he asks for spare change, people see his impeccably-matched ensemble and assume he doesn’t need anything from them.

“One of the staple reactions that I get is, ‘You don’t look like you need change. Look at how you’re dressed. You’re dressed better than me!'” he says. “I’m like, look, you bought a drink for a bitch you couldn’t fuck, and I bought a jacket. I’m sorry. It’s cold outside, you got a hangover and I’m warm. Don’t blame me. Why do you care what I’m wearing? Because if I remind you of you, it’s too close.

“I’m working,” he adds. “So, why does it matter how I spend my money? Actually, it does. Because you know what, you’ll give me money, and you’ll say, ‘Here’s some money, do the right thing.’ I’ll buy a shirt and a tie, and the next person will say, ‘You don’t need money, you look too good.’ If I bought drugs, or if I bought liquor and I was on the side of the street like this” – Smith acts drunk and crazy, slumped against a doorway holding out an imaginary cup – “that’s when you would say, ‘Here.’ That’s when you need it?”

Smith also bought a phone a few months ago, which doesn’t cure the stereotypes at all but improves his life a lot. He spent an hour and a half outside a T-Mobile store telling jokes, until he had collected the $30 he needed to buy the phone, with an affordable pay-as-you-go plan.

“I have a phone, and it’s got a radio, and I got thirty minutes free, for $30? How can you beat that? How can you beat that as the next step to having people say, ‘Give me a call. I might have a job for you.'”

Smith contends that his appearance and his purchase of a phone should not be viewed as anything other than a working man trying to improve himself. And he does that by making other people laugh – not on a club stage or at an open-mike night, but by stopping them on the street and getting to know them, if only for a moment.

“I don’t mind doing a comedy club every once and a while, but they don’t pay,” Smith says. “I did Joe’s Pub, big deal. I did CBGB’s, big deal. I did the Bitter End. Big Deal. I did Comedy Village. Big Deal. So what? Does it change anything? No. ‘You’re funny, have a drink.’

“In the meantime,” he points out, “at some of those places, I gotta pay to go in, and then buy two drinks, and if I get on stage, they’ll give me $10 back. 30 bucks so I can hi, and tell jokes to the same people I would see outside on the street?”

“He’s just natural,” Bridget Masella, 43, says of the gregarious street comedian. “He’s good. He’ll just go right up to you and he’ll start talking to you, and have a nice time with you. He’s a good person. He deserves to be somewhere where everybody can really see him, because he is talented. He deserves that shot.”

Masella often spots Smith while she is eating at one of the East Village’s many outdoor cafés. He has been making her laugh for the past year and a half, she says, but never begs for money.

“He was doing jokes, and then people were paying him,” she explains. “So I said, ‘Why don’t you do it professionally?’ And he’s like, ‘That’s what I’m trying to do.'”

“Isn’t it cool that I might not have anything,” Smith says, “that I might be a homeless guy, and I can still make a woman smile?” He shows off a wide, toothy grin.

* * *

Smith calls a man named Alan Keough “one of my angels.” At first, Keough was just another stranger who wanted to hear a joke. But this tourist from Ireland saw that Smith needed his help.

“You don’t deserve to be on the street,” Keough said. “All you need is a chance. I don’t understand why people can help you, but they don’t. That makes no sense to me.”

Smith told him that he really just needed a bath. Keough got him a room at the Saint Marks Hotel, and then gave him $2400 for the security deposit and first and last month’s rent for an apartment on 7th Street. Tears spring to Smith’s eyes when he thinks about Keough’s generosity.

For about a year, Smith paid $700 a month to have his own room – a place to hang his clothes and keep his things. He found furniture on the street. He cooked and cleaned and bought groceries. For the first time in a long time, he had a home.

“I got my life back,” he says.

Unfortunately, Smith says, the man subletting the apartment was not paying rent to the landlord. He came home one day in October to find that he had been evicted.

“I lost everything,” Smith says. “Everything that I worked so fucking hard for. I lost every last bit of ID, my paintings, my clothes, my fur coat. Everything that I had, I lost. When the Marshall comes and puts that sticker on your door – “Do Not Break This Seal” – that’s it. Done.”

He was suddenly back on the street.

* * *

Smith moved to New York from his hometown of Boston in 1981. For the next several years, he worked on Fifth Avenue at a job placement firm, finding work for secretaries and temps. When a long-term romance with one of his employees turned sour, it cost him thousands of dollars and a lucrative contract, and sent him spiraling into a deep depression.

“My friends said, ‘She was your match,'” he recalls. “Your perfect woman.”

In the late ’80s, Smith performed various stints as a DJ and MC on Long Island, a dancer on “Club MTV,” and a model for Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Armani and the like.

But beginning in 1992, he served a seven-year jail sentence for grand larceny. When he was released in 1999, Smith moved to Brooklyn and began a new career in the mental health industry, counseling and training mental health employees. He started his own company after finding success in a rewarding field.

“People were paying big money to hear me speak and train their employees,” Smith says. “Giving lectures and stuff.”

After 9/11, however, the bottom dropped out of the industry, funding disappeared, and no one wanted to hire a consultant to train and motivate employees that were soon to be fired. So Smith started a van service, driving women to visit their husbands and children in prison. The business lasted for about two years before rising insurance costs, cancellations, parking tickets and two broken down vehicles led to its collapse.

Soon after, Smith’s landlord raised the rent on his Brooklyn brownstone from $400 a month to the prohibitive market value of $1200. He lost his lease and got on the subway to Manhattan, with no family and no place else to go.

“It was obvious the guy had something, somewhere, sometime,” says Brendan Buggy, a 52-year-old bartender at McSorley’s Old Ale House on 7th Street. “He wasn’t a vagrant. I mean obviously he had a brain at some point. If he can be this articulate at this stage, where did that come from? Most of them can’t put two words together. They can’t put two syllables together, let alone a statement. And with this guy, you always got the impression that he came from somewhere.”

But that sentiment also leads to doubt. How could a man with so many careers, and so many connections, wind up on the street?

“He’s got all these stories,” Shaub says, “and maybe most of it’s true. But I think he’s a little crazy.”

“I could never tell if the guy was legitimate, or just really well prepped,” Buggy says.

Buggy says that Smith’s stories often sound more like a finely-detailed script than real life. But perhaps in Smith’s case, the past is less important than the future.

* * *

You can practically see dollar signs in Smith’s eyes as they dart around Astor Place, while he stands in front of Starbucks and the entrance to the uptown 6 train. He points as people pass:

“That crowd over there’s good for four dollars. The blondes over there, that’s a five dollar crowd. And that’s a three dollar crowd, because there are kids there. These guys right here will give me two dollars, and maybe 50 cents over there. Let’s say 25 dollars, and I haven’t even left this area.”

Joke Man spots three men waiting for the light to change on Lafayette Street. He runs off to catch them before they cross.

“Hey fellas, if I make you laugh, can I earn some change?”

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1 Comment

Filed under Homeless

One response to “Do the Right Thing

  1. Pingback: Update: Devin Smith Still Trying to ‘Do the Right Thing’ « Smoking Stories

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