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"I am putting the bums to work, in a way, because I'm paying them to wear these T-shirts and put the signs out. I'm exploiting them a little bit, I guess, but I'm providing them with money and lunch once in a while."
His lead guy, Dan Kearns, lives under the I-435 bridge. As Mabie drives under the bridge on East Truman Road, he sees Kearns walking. Mabie honks his horn. Kearns walks up to the car.
"Staying warm?" Mabie asks.
"The police department took your signs down just now," Kearns says.
"I know," Mabie says as he hands Kearns some money. "Give that to her," Mabie says, motioning to a woman covered up in a blanket under the bridge. "How's it going?""OK." Kearns is bundled up in a winter coat and a sweatshirt. His bushy eyebrows stick out from under his sweatshirt hood. Scruffy whiskers cover his face. He keeps talking about the signs disappearing. Kearns wants to know about a customer he sent to Mabie's warehouse. He says a man at a gas station asked him for directions to Warehouse 1.
"I'll give you directions to Warehouse 1," Kearns says he told the man, "but I want you to go across the street, too."
Mabie says he remembers the customer.
"You're my boy," Mabie says. "Dan's the real man down here. Thanks, Dan. We'll see you later, buddy. I'll bring you lunch or something."
The air is cold and chilly on an early Wednesday in November. Kearns smokes cigarettes while panhandling in the median next to the I-435 offramp. Kearns is bundled up with several layers of shirts and sweatshirts. A stocking cap covers his matted hair and hides his headphones, which are blaring country music.
The early afternoon traffic doesn't seem to be generating much money when Mabie pulls up, passes Kearns a folded $5 bill and tells him to get in the car.
Kearns has lived under the bridge for 20 months.
"MODOT used to bother us, but I got most of the riffraff out of here and keep it clean," he says. "They ain't bothered us since last winter.... We've got harmony on the corner now."
Kearns grew up in the Quad Cities of southeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois and has lived in Kansas City since 1983. He and his girlfriend at the time used to run Tom's Thrift Store across the street from the Aldi grocery store in the 6400 block of Truman Road. And he used to sell old appliances for $25 apiece to Mabie's brother, Bill. These days, his trade is rehabbing houses. "I can do anything to a house but plumbing or electricity. Anything. Roof. Sheetrock. Texture. Paint. Tile."
Mabie didn't know about Kearns' connection with his brother when he first approached Kearns about guarding his signs. Now, the two have a friendly business arrangement.
"Chuck buys me lunch all the time," says Kearns, who usually refers to Mabie as "sign man."
"Brings Wendy's by and stuff. He does that for all the homeless people down here. If he sees you wearing a shirt, he'll give you $5."
Kearns says he has seen a man from "the forklift place," who drives the Astro Van, taking Mabie's signs. Kearns says he ran after the man and yelled, "Hey, put that back."
"He got in the van with the sign and flipped me the bird and drove off," Kearns says.