There’s an intersection near my house that, for one reason or another, is a haven for panhandlers.
I’m not sure why, exactly. It doesn’t seem to be any different than the thousands of other intersections that criss-cross suburbia, but whenever I sit at that red light – morning, noon, or evening – there’s someone there, asking for money. Just the other day, when I passed through on the way home from work, there were three different panhandlers working the corners, all of them gritty looking, holding cardboard signs.
I have so many questions about this. How do panhandlers go about choosing their intersections? Do they work multiple corners a day? Are there territories for panhandlers, like street gangs? Is it a metric-based decision, where they analyze traffic patterns? Or is it more of a gut feeling, the way grandpappy discovered his secret fishing hole?
I can’t imagine what it would feel like, being so out of options that I have to stand at an intersection for hours on end, relying on the kindness of strangers to provide for my family. But I think the most difficult struggle, were I forced to beg on the streets, would be what to write on my cardboard sign.
The sign is everything, in my opinion. You’ve got to find the right balance between myriad elements, eliciting sympathy without being sappy, being clear in your message but not pushy. Humor can hook your audience, but you risk alienating them. Take the guy I saw last month, holding a sign that read:
Don’t Have Commenwealth (sic).
Points for the creativity, my man, but comedy doesn’t evoke compassion. The cynical driver will think if you’re smart enough to make a pun, you’re smart enough to cover your own moving costs.
Brevity is also key. Not long ago, across the street from where I saw the Commenwealth Comedian, a woman stood with a piece of cardboard that looked like it had the Declaration of Independence written on it. I was immediately turned off, because I knew she was the type of sadistic person who would, were she my colleague, force me to sit through a Powerpoint presentation composed of 200-word slides. I’m sure your story is compelling, but how the fuck am I supposed to digest this in the half-second I glance at you before looking away so we don’t make eye contact?
I know I seem callous. I do feel for the less fortunate, and I sympathize with the hurt, the embarrassment they must feel having to ask strangers for support.
When I was younger and began forming my own worldview, my heart bled for these people. I didn’t have much money, but I gave when I could.
Once, when on a lunch break from the guitar shop I worked at after college, I brought a homeless woman into the McDonalds where she was standing and told her to order whatever she wanted. She thanked me profusely, and I left satisfied, proud of myself for doing a good deed.
But when you’re making $7.25 an hour and can barely buy your own McDonald’s, it’s tough to give handouts to every beggar you encounter. So I decided instead of donating my money, I’d donate my kindness.
I started talking to them, rolling down my window to say hello. “Nice day today,” I’d say, or “gonna be a hot one.” I’d always drive off feeling good about myself, like I’d done something good.
I did this for a year or so, smiling and making small talk, until one interaction ended my kindness for good.
It was about 10 years ago, at an intersection in DC. I was on my way to work and saw a man at a red light with a sign that said
Homeless Anything helps
It was a simple message, one that pulled at my heart strings, and so I smiled at the man and waved. He came over to my window and I rolled it down.
“How you doing?” I said.
“How am I doing?” he said, gesturing to his ragged clothes. “How does it look like I’m doing?”
Already, I saw I had made a grave error. I gave a nervous laugh and tried to recover. “Right, right,” I said.
“You got any money?”
“I don’t have any cash on me, I’m sorry,” I said. It was a lie, of course, but what was I going to say? Can you make change for a 20?
“Then why did you call me over here?” he said.
“Well I…I just wanted to say hello. To be nice.”
“You know what would be nice? If you gave me some fuckin’ money.”
My heart raced. The stoplight above me glowed red, blocking my escape. I could just roll up my window, ending the conversation, but I worried about the consequences. Not only was I concerned this man would kick my door or smash my windshield with a concealed crowbar, but I also didn’t want him to think I was being rude.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” I said.
“Fuck you, asshole,” he said. And then he spit on my front quarter panel and walked away.
Since then, I’ve been a bit gun-shy about making eye contact with panhandlers.
Lately, panhandlers in my neighborhood have been leaving the intersections and going door-to-door. This seems aggressive to me, and also very unfair. At least at a red light, I can stare straight ahead and pretend not to see the person standing six inches away from my window. But when you open your front door, there is no escape.
I’m bad at answering the door on any occasion, mostly because I’m too nice to say no. When Melinda and I first bought our house, a man came to the door and started talking to me about installing solar panels. He talked for a long time and I wasn’t really paying attention, and before I knew it, he was inside the house, looking at the breaker box and taking measurements.
“Who is this and why is he in our house?” Melinda said to me while the man typed notes about our electrical system into his iPad.
“Oh, this is Rich,” I said. “He’s taking some measurements for solar panels.”
“Solar panels?” she said. “We don’t want solar panels.”
Rich looked from Melinda to me. “I’m confused,” he said. “You told me you were interested.”
“I said it was interesting,” I said.
Rich was not pleased. “If you’re not interested, why am I here?”
I gave a little shrug.
“Great. Thanks for wasting my goddamn time,” he said.
He turned heel and marched down the driveway in a huff.
So now, with these roving panhandlers, I’m royally screwed. The biggest problem is that they’re not easily identifiable. They’re not wearing shabby clothes and three-day-old beards. They’re a little more put together, and instead of cardboard signs, they carry schemes.
Last month I answered the door and found a teenager in sweatpants and a stretched-out polo shirt. He was raising money for his youth group to go on a mission trip, he said.
“That’s fantastic,” I said. “I used to go on mission trips with my church when I was in high school. Where are you going?”
“Huh?” the teen said.
“Where are you going on your mission trip?”
“Oh, uh, Mexico I think?”
“Good for you,” I said, peeling a ten from my wallet. “Good luck.”
The boy took the money and bounded off.
Melinda, who watched this whole interaction from the couch, chastised me. “Are you kidding me?” she said.
“You think that kid was actually going on a mission trip?”
“He said he was going with his church!” I said.
“Yeah? Which church?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Let’s recap,” she said. “You just gave money to a boy with no identification, no donation receipts, not even a clipboard, who said he’s going on a mission trip to um, Mexico, I think.”
“You’re not allowed to answer the door anymore.”
It’s a good thing, too, because a few weeks after that, Melinda found a woman at our front door, asking for money. She had a newborn, she said, and needed money for diapers.
Melinda is far less gullible than me, and, seeing no evidence of a child anywhere in sight, walked the woman across the street to the grocery store and bought her diapers. If she was telling the truth, Melinda did a good thing. If not, this lady had a 12-pack of diapers for a kid who didn’t exist, and Melinda was vindicated in outsmarting a scammer.
While made to feel guilty in your car or getting tricked at your front door can be pretty angering, I’d venture there’s one group of panhandlers out there who are so sinister, so ruthless, it puts even the slimiest swindler to shame. These grifters hide in plain sight at shopping malls and grocery stores, masked by apple-cheeks and cute polyester uniforms. They might even be in your neighborhood right now, tugging a wagon full of illicit wares along the sidewalk.
That’s right. I’m talking about Cub Scout Popcorn.
For decades, these little savages have pilfered the wallets of suburban moms, trading in return cellophane-wrapped bags of bland bullshit.
As snack foods go, popcorn is at the bottom of the totem pole, down there with rice cakes and ants on a log. No kid comes home from school and gets excited about popping a big ol’ bag of Cub Scout brand butter. But since Mom paid $33 for that six-pack, that’s what they’re getting.
But Sam, you say, don’t the Girl Scouts also scam you each year by guilting you into buying their overpriced cookies? On the surface, perhaps. But the difference here is that the Girl Scouts sell a product that is beloved, even revered by the American public. I know people that have committed felonies to get their hands on a box of Samoas. Coffee Mate makes a Thin Mint-flavored coffee creamer. Have you ever poured Cub Scout Caramel Corn creamer into your coffee? Of course not, because that sounds fucking disgusting.
I hate those little shits that stand at the table in front of Home Depot, because they’re more aggressive and pathos-inducing than any panhandler with a sob story. These kids have no shame, running up to you and tugging on your sleeve like you’re a G.I. in a combat zone with a Hersey’s bar in your pocket.
“Would you like to buy some popcorn?” they’ll say.
I look down at them, into their liar’s eyes, focusing all of my complicated, multi-layered feelings about panhandling right at them. All of my sympathy, my disgust, my guilt, my conflict over the world’s inequalities, is compressed into the big, fat lie that escapes my lips.
“No thanks. We already bought some.”