Baltimore is becoming a city of sophisticated begging

September 24, 1991|By Robin Miller

MY FAVORITE panhandler is the gas man. He wanders around downtown, carrying a gas can, and says, "Hey, man, my car just ran out of gas. Can you spare a buck or two to help me get on my way?"

He usually approaches motorists stopped at red lights, and a surprising number fork over a quarter or a buck. I've watched him work and wondered why I bother to drive a cab. This guy takes in more money than I do.

Another fine street hustler is the lady who wheels her child around in a stroller, begging for money "to buy food and diapers for the baby." She's been using this pitch so long that the kid is outgrowing the stroller. Last year an Evening Sun columnist wrote about how he'd given money to this woman on Calvert Street, even though he wondered if he was being scammed.

He was. Once, when this woman hit me up, I offered to take her to the nearest store and buy food and diapers. She turned down the offer.

Several weeks later, I saw her, without the kid, hanging out with a couple of men dressed in a manner I associate with drug dealing, in a neighborhood where selling crack is the primary business activity. Somehow, I don't think the money she gets from big-hearted Evening Sun staffers is used to buy food for the child. But maybe I'm just cynical.

When Baltimore was a backwater town, a panhandler could walk up and say, "Hey, man, can you spare a quarter?" and we were likely to give. Today it takes a better pitch to get us to part with our change. Our beggars have grown, not only in number, but in sophistication. I suppose this change is a natural result of our increasingly metropolitan status. Our beggars aren't as entertaining as New York's yet, but they're getting there.

One who's gotten some recent press is the guy who hangs around at the corner of Harford Road and The Alameda with a sign that says, "Will work for food." A friend of mine swears he's seen people give this man food, but "he throws it in the bushes. People give him cash, too. He keeps the cash."

In front of the WaWa store at St. Paul and 33rd, a number of men work the Hopkins University crowd. One always starts his pitch with a disingenuous smile and says, "Look, I know I'm black, but don't be afraid. I'm just broke. I don't hurt anyone. I'm just trying to get up enough money to buy something to eat." His pitch seems to work, as well it should. He's so good that tin men could learn from him. It's worth a little change just to listen to his well-prepared pitch.

But in begging, as in everything else, it's better to own a suit and go for the big money than to hang around in old clothes cadging small change. At Penn Station, one man has been spotted carrying a photo of his "ailing son," with a petition he asks you to sign "to help my boy get the treatment he needs."

Then comes the pitch: "Five dollars -- or whatever you can spare." Another suit-wearing hustler, who carries an attache case, has had his wallet stolen and is trying to "raise train fare back to D.C. All I need is five bucks," he says. It's a good hustle, and the first time you hear it, you'll swear he's legit; he's so sincere. But how many people have their wallets stolen every day, week after week?

The epilepsy lady has a good gig, too. She sits on a stool in front of either the Rite-Aid or the Stop, Shop & Save in the Erdman

Shopping Center, rattling a can marked "Help Fight Epilepsy." My wife has a type of epilepsy, so I'm a sucker for this one, and I gave this woman small amounts many times until the day I asked her to show me proof that she was actually collecting for the Epilepsy Foundation. She couldn't produce any because she'd "left it at home." A week or so later, she'd "left it at home" again. Oh, well. Two or three dollars over some months isn't much.

I'm at the point where I simply assume I'm being conned every time someone asks me for money. This scares me. One night, someone who is truly in need will have trouble rounding up a little bit of money to put gas in the car, or find a place to stay, or get a bite to eat. I might be in this position myself someday, and I'm afraid no one will listen to me.

I suppose we have to listen to the beggars and their increasingly sophisticated patter if we want to live in a "world-class city" with $500,000 condominiums, expensive parking garages, a Harvard-educated mayor, a new baseball stadium and restaurants that charge $40 for a plate of so-so food.


Robin Miller gets around in his taxi.

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