As the light turns from green to red at the intersection of Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard, it’s Jeff Stevens’ cue to go on.
Every light cycle, Stevens has a new audience. He smiles, he waves, he twirls and balances a cane. As many panhandlers on Sundays do, he holds a sign. His signs, though, are different.
“I used to hold a sign that was ‘Homeless’ and that didn’t really work for me,” Stevens said. He was homeless, but got off the streets and into an apartment in 2011. He got a full time job working at Denny’s. Still, it wasn’t enough to make ends meet.
So he got creative.
“I started coming up with comedy things and trying to make people laugh,” he said. “It just brightens their day.”
Today’s signs included: “Wife + pet tiger abducted. Need help w/ ransom to save my lovable tiger. They can have wife, so much quieter at home. Anything helps! L.O.L.”, “Geico Kidnapped my Pet Lizzard. Need Help w/ ransom to save the little guys life.”
This intersection is center ring. He engages his audience. Sometimes it’s a smile, sometimes it’s a dollar. His performance is nothing new, just the venue has changed.
“One day, I hope to actually get a better job to get back into doing what I used to do, which is travelling the circus and performing with wild cats,” he said.
He says he’s cousins with the famous Ron and Joy Holiday, the subjects of HBO’s documentary Cat Dancers – who gained notoriety when their partner Chuck Lizza was killed by one of their live-in white tigers. Stevens said tragedy after tragedy, from his parents’ death to run-ins with the law, brought him to Florida.
But the show must go on, and Stevens comes to this Tampa intersection every Sunday. He’s holding funny signs to pay his bills. He’s twirling a cane to put some money away in savings. He’s making people smile, like he did under the big top.
“It blesses my heart to see them laughing,” he said. “If I don’t make a dollar or anything, it feels good right here just to see somebody smile.”
The light turns green. This show is done. As the audience drives away, Stevens is still on. Smiling, waving, preparing for the next show – when the traffic stops.