Panhandling lacks 'please'

Kevin Cowherd

June 28, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

It was early afternoon when this young guy walked out of McDonald's and came up to me on the busy street corner and said: "Hey, man, you got a quarter?"

"No," I said.

This happened to be true. In the best of times, I carry very little money. This is mainly because I make very little money. Quite frankly, there are 14-year-olds with only sporadic lawn-mowing jobs who have more money than I do.

In this case, I had exactly seven bucks and no change in my pocket.

"You don't have a quarter?" the guy said.

He seemed genuinely astonished. For a moment, I thought he might feel sorry and actually give me a quarter, which would have been a nice touch.

Instead, what played out next was one of those urban mini-dramas that make the city such a fun place.

First, the man cursed loudly. Then he banged the windshield of a nearby car with his fist. Then he kicked over a trash can. It was an amazing display of temper and very entertaining, in its own way.

Except I kept thinking: "This is certainly riveting. But what if this nut pulls out a gun?"

See, it has been my observation that once you introduce a handgun into these conversations, the level of entertainment tends to diminish considerably.

Fortunately, the man elected not to spray the corner with automatic gunfire and just walked away muttering to himself.

But as I took a couple of deep breaths and attempted to stop my eyeballs from fluttering, it occurred to me that you used to see a better class of panhandlers. People who didn't blow up after every little rejection. People who, if someone failed to hand them a quarter, didn't take it personally.

Maybe these are harder times now, I don't know.

I remember a woman who used to panhandle downtown near the Inner Harbor. Lottie was her name. She had the nicest smile.

She was so nice that when she hit you up for money, you were tempted to say: "Look, here's a map that shows where I live. And here are the keys to the house. Take a rest, there's food in the fridge, lock up when you leave."

She was a charmer, Lottie was. And almost everyone gave her money. On summer mornings, I would see her sitting on a strip of grass downtown, and in the fresh air and bright sunshine, she seemed so peaceful.

(Look, I'm not advocating panhandling as a way of life. I'm just saying there are times when . . . never mind. It would take too long to explain. Besides, if I laid out my theory of social responsibility vis-a-vis the poor, I'd get a bunch of angry letters saying: "You are an insensitive pig and possibly a subversive to boot. Please cancel my subscription to that rag you work for."

(And the way things are going at this rag, we need all the readers we can get.)

The point (if there is a point to all this) is that there are people out there who give panhandling a bad name.

I ran into one of these people not long ago while waiting for a train in New York's Penn Station.

It was about 9 p.m. and I was leaning against a stone pillar, trying not to get murdered, when this guy approached.

He was fairly well-dressed and proceeded to lay this sob story on me.

He said he had left his car in a nearby parking garage earlier that morning. But his work had taken longer than anticipated. And by the time he returned to the parking garage, it was closed for the night.

Now, he said, he was trying to drum up bus fare to get back to New Jersey, where his poor wife was in the hospital and his two young kids were staying with his asthmatic 85-year-old mother, who was half-blind, too, and . . . on and on it went.

I kept waiting to hear that the kids had tuberculosis and that a fire had recently swept through the house and the family cocker spaniel had been run over by a delivery truck.

Frankly, I thought the guy was working a scam.

But I gave him a couple of bucks anyway, because I'm not real bright. And because there existed the chance (however slight) that the guy was telling the truth.

Anyway, three nights later, I'm back at the train station and I see the same guy. And he's giving this woman the same sob story he gave me.

The guy even got misty-eyed in all the same parts of the story. Apparently, he was like the DeNiro of panhandlers. A panhandler who can cry on cue, you have to admire that.

But it makes you think about reaching in your pocket.

It really does.

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