March 25, 2008

panhandling 2

This happened the night after I wrote my last blog, the one about panhandling.

When I stepped out of the pool hall, it was cold. Winter had stretched its bony fingers longer into March than usual and the ground was still covered with ice, and the streets were lined with dirty snow. A man stood just outside the entrance, where the smokers would stand if they weren’t allowed to practice indoors, but the man was not smoking. He was waiting for the comers and goers to see him, waiting to ask them for a little financial help.

I walked by him, didn’t look at him. If you look, you have to talk. If you talk, you have to give. There are rules.

He was a panhandler, and lately I had been thinking about people just like him, how homeless or not-so-homeless people like him are simply in pursuit of a bit of alcohol on the dime of some na├»ve patron. I didn’t like the rules. It’s simpler to walk by, to not listen, to not look. But he didn’t care about the rules.

“Hey, mannnn,” he said, “Please help me out. Help me out, mannn.” I tried not to stop, but failed. I turned and looked at him. He was thin with big eyes, had patches of hair across his chin, little islands of beard, and was huddled over himself, shrunk down to hold his heat better. He sounded desperate, as one who had long given up on saving face.

“What’s up?”
“I just need some money to get some groceries, anything, man. I haven’t eaten in days. I don’t wanna end up in the hospital again, man.”
I tried to gauge his honesty. I thought about him, and I thought about me. He sounded genuine. I thought about the cash in my wallet. His voice was humble, he sounded like he really cared. He might have been telling the truth.

“You were in the hospital?” I asked him.
“Yeah, for three days. Last month.”

I have never felt as wealthy as I did that moment. And feeling wealthy didn’t feel good. I thought about how unbelievable it was that anyone in Grand Rapids would go without a meal. I cannot remember ever missing a meal for lack of access. And I, at 24, was now the provider. This man was rail thin begging a kid half his age for some coin to buy groceries.

Part of me still knew, still thought he was lying. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t want to give him beer money. I thought about walking to the grocery store with him. I thought about giving him a ride. But I was alone, and that’s how stupid but well-meaning people get hurt and disappear and get found in a park somewhere when the snow melts.

“Man, I want to help you. It’s just that,” and now I can’t believe I said this, “Sometimes, people don’t use the money one what they say they will. Sometimes people use it for alcohol.” I spoke what was on my mind, trying to be honest, trying to tell him I was onto him, trying to guilt-trip him, too.
“I’m not going to buy alcohol. I just need some food.”

I had started the dialogue with him, and in some ways I felt the burden to teach him a lesson, to inspire him or something. I wanted to tell him flat out, “You can have a dollar, but don’t use it for booze.” I didn’t say it.

He never got hostile with me. I don’t think he was a hostile person, just someone in need. Still, I thought about myself, alone with this desperate stranger who could be all kinds of dangerous. As much as I wanted to help him and ensure that I wasn’t just buying him booze, there was just no way I was going to accomplish that right then.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said. I thought about how ridiculous that would be. Me, tracking down the poor guy for a dollar.
“No,” I told him, and I thought of a solution. “Hey, I’ll help you out, but this is what you have to do – just pay it forward, man. Help someone else out. Okay?” It sounds more righteous than it really was.
He nodded, and I pulled out my wallet and opened it toward me so he wouldn’t see how much I really had. I gave him a dollar.

I walked away and thought about all of it again. I had wanted so badly to call this guy out, like I was empowered to help him kick his alleged habit right then and there. All he needs is some truth, right? But here’s the thing: No one likes addiction. If anything, the guilt-trip does vastly more damage than good for people in his state. If he really was an alcoholic, someone at their real rock bottom without income, shelter, or food, what could I have accomplished? I can imagine walking away, and the poor, desperate guy just feeling worse about himself. That would really pull him out of the mire.

March 11, 2008


When I was a freshman in high school, our youth group went to Chicago for the Holiday Youth Convention. It was like youth group, but with like 1,000 kids and it lasted for 48 hours. When we weren't sapping youth pastors of their energy at the hotel, we were free to sap it on the streets of downtown Chicago. As best I remember, this was my first encounter with a pan-handler.

I was wearing cheap, faux-leather shoes, a size too small, scuffed and peeling at the creases. They were barely passable as footwear. Some guy stopped me and complimented me on them. He made the transition from complimenting to physically shining so smoothly I can't remember it. I do remember looking up as the rest of our entourage wisely walked away, and looking down as the guy went to town on my shoes, dabbing them with hand soap from a dixie cup. The shoeshiner was going on about how his hand soap was actually a fine, high-end shoe-polish, specially formulated to preserve texture and give unbelievable sheen.

Now, I don't know what makes a naive-looking high-schooler a good mark for a shoe-shiner (except for the whole naive-looking part). Why he expected me to pay him to shine my crappy shoes, I don't know. He finished - one shoe, I think - and waited for me to hand over some payment. It's unspoken, but obvious, that you're supposed to pay people for things like this. Since it was unspoken, to me it remained unheard. I thanked him and walked away, and I didn't look back.

I was in Chicago again this weekend, a bit more seasoned to the wiles of the panhandler. I had to catch an early train to get back to a friend's house, and I had skipped breakfast, so I stopped to buy some apple juice from a corner store. I spent one of the two singles in my wallet, unaware that a trainride would be two dollars, and the ticket machine didn't give change. So when I got to the Lawrence Avenue station and paused in front of the machine to consider my options. The clerk fingered me as a newbie, and stepped out to tell me I'd have to get change elsewhere. So I walked down to a Starbucks to make change.

I was greeted out front by a man who quietly asked me for change. (The door to Starbucks is a great place to pan-handle - There are lots of guilty-feeling yuppies hoping to earn some instant karma.) He had just smoked and I could smell his breath, deep and rotten. I could smell his lungs dying inside of him. I didn't say a word, just handed him my bottle of juice and nodded and felt proud. Now, I had to replace my cheap apple juice with expensive Starbucks apple juice, which was mostly ice. But still tasty. I used the singles in my change to buy my ticket and hopped the train south.

The night before, after an unplanned trek down Michigan Avenue, we went to the Cheesecake Factory for some dinner. Dan was a marked man, tall and grinning, the only one in our group with shinable shoes. Just as had happened to me ten years earlier, a man stopped him to compliment his shoes, and we all moved steadfastly forward hoping to pull him along. I told him we had to get to our table (a lie) but the man rambled on just the same and smoothly went to shine the shoes. A few minutes later Anna went to physically rescue Dan and the two of them came back, Dan flustered and Anna frustrated. Dan had given the man five bucks, a huge fee for an unwanted shoeshine. He told us the guy asked for $9 a shoe.

This guy was smart. He probably wasn't homeless, and I don't know if it's more appropriate to lump him in with panhandlers, scam artists, or legitimate nostalgic shoe-shiners. Maybe he's all three. But I think it's appropriate to realize that not everyone on a street corner who asks for change - even the ones that provide a service or a good excuse ("It's my birthday" once scored a couple quarters from me) is someone in actual need. That's where the difficulty really is: When you hand change to someone on a street corner, are you helping them get back on their feet, or stay off them for just a little while longer? A professional mooch can probably have their needs met just fine, especially if their needs are a bottle of scotch and a pack of Newports.

Better than coins: A gift card to Subway or McDonald's.