Last spring Jonas Stone had a seizure at the intersection of First Avenue and Marion Street. He hit his head on a slab of concrete


Best Panhandling Gimmick

Jonas Stone


Last spring Jonas Stone had a seizure at the intersection of First Avenue and Marion Street. He hit his head on a slab of concrete when he fell, which required 14 sutures and several days of rest. When Stone reappeared downtown, strangers inquired about his absence. "Whenever I take a day off, people come up to me and say 'Where were you? Why weren't you here the other day?'" he says, looking pleased.

Stone, who declines to give his legal name, is better known to those who frequent downtown and the ferry terminal as The Smile Guy. He's stood at the intersection of First and Marion for eight to 12 hours a day, rain or shine, since 2003. In a city well-populated with panhandlers, he's set himself apart by opting to hold a brightly colored sign that simply reads "Smile." Tourists either avoid eye contact or grant him a wide grin. Occasionally, someone snaps his photo. But residents have grown familiar enough with Stone that they often pause to converse with him.

"I used to hold a sign that said I was broke and hungry," Stone says. "But it dawned on me while I was standing here that nobody who went by was smiling. They dragged their feet on their way to work and on their way home. So I threw away my old sign and decided to tell them to smile."

A 50-year-old Chicago native, Stone says he moved to Seattle with his wife and children in 1991. He worked as an environmental technician at a hospital, which he notes "is a fancy word for janitor," and was a representative for a service employees' union. He hoped working full-time to support a family would help curb his drug habit, but he began using as soon as he met people who could hook him up with drugs. "I did 'em all," he says. "I was a meth addict and then I was a heroin addict. I partied too much during my adult life and was friends with the wrong people. It destroyed everything in my life."

In 2000, Stone says he was arrested and sentenced to 28 months in Pierce County Jail for possession of heroin. He was then sentenced to an additional 14 months for attempting escape. Today he resides in transitional housing on Capitol Hill and is in a treatment program. He's been sober for 168 days, he tells me. But he doesn't have any idea where his family is. And he often has seizures—a side effect of his heavy heroin use—and is diagnosed with bipolar depression. "I'm in AA, I have medications to take, I go to lots of doctor's appointments," Stone says. "But I feel good when I'm out [downtown]. It distracts me from the pain."

"This has become my job," he continues. "I'm the CEO of my own company. And my business is to make people smile." With his "business," Stone makes enough money to pay his monthly rent—about $340—at the Chamberlain House on Belmont Avenue, as well as to indulge in coffee and cigarettes. More important, he says his sign really works.

"I get about 80 to 95 percent of people to smile," Stone says proudly. "They recognize that when they go by me, they're going through the smile zone. It makes us all a little happier for a couple moments."—Erika Hobart

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