It's a long bus ride to peace of mind from beggar standoff

August 24, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

The call came. And my friend was clearly upset.

It wasn't a big thing, she said. But I could tell that it was.

Here's her story. She pulled into the parking lot at the grocery store at 9:30 on a weeknight. That's not unusual for her or anyone who works. You fit in your shopping when you can. She'd been there dozens of times at night and thought nothing of it.

As she opened the door to get out of her car, a man planted himself between her and the car door.

He wanted $7, he said.

He told her a story of the kind those of us who live in cities often hear. He needed money for a bus. Once, we might have believed the guy. That was a long time ago. I've heard at least five different variations on this story myself.

For example, there's a man who used to work the streets outside the train station who apparently has a problem with his gas gauge. That must be it, because he's always running out of gas. Three bucks would be a big help, he says in his most sincere voice. Though I never believed his story, I gave him the $3 out of appreciation for his technique.

The second time he approached me, I reminded him of the first, and he sheepishly walked away.

This guy with my friend was not so sheepish. She didn't know what to do. Her car was boxed in. There was nobody around. It was just her and this unwanted, apparently menacing man, who kept asking for $7. He said he'd had to sleep on the street the night before and really needed the cash.

"I told him I didn't know if I had any money, and he just kept talking," my friend said. "He didn't threaten me. He just got, I don't know, agitated. He wasn't leaving."

She was afraid to open her pocketbook. Her keys were inside, and she was afraid he'd grab the car, maybe with her in it.

If he grabbed her purse, she figured, that wouldn't be the worst thing. There was only money in there and credit cards. Later, I told her the story of another friend who was stopped by that guy who always needed $3 for gas at the train station. As I said, he hadn't seemed dangerous to me, but he did to her. He asked for $3, but all she had was a $20. Which she threw at him and then hit the gas.

My friend in the parking lot understood.

"If I had the $20 in my hand, I'd have given it to this guy gladly," she said. "I just wanted him to go away."

Finally, she opened her pocketbook and gave the guy the $7. He didn't ask for more or try to take anything. But he didn't leave right away either. Finally, he moved and she went to the store.

She told the manager that she'd been -- what? She hadn't been mugged. She had been harassed, though. She felt intimidated, violated. The manager told the guy to leave the parking lot. He didn't. The manager called the police, and by the time they got there, the man was gone.

It's for people like him that they passed the law in Baltimore and other cities against what's called aggressive panhandling. It says you can't block or impede people while asking for money. It says you can't curse or threaten or intimidate.

The Baltimore law was just struck down by a judge who said it unfairly singled out homeless people and beggars.

I worry about the law because it can be so easily misapplied in order to intimidate those homeless who do beg. There are many people who look at beggars and see eyesores. They see a problem that, when unseen, they never have to think about. They want these people gone.

The ACLU has filed a suit against the city for what it calls a "move along" policy. It charges that police often arbitrarily force homeless people to pick up and move.

But this was different from begging. The man who wanted $7 didn't touch my friend. He didn't threaten her. But still his actions bordered on assault. Certainly, she felt assaulted.

I asked a city official if there were other laws to cover this problem, and I got a vague answer. There should be a clear answer, one that can protect my friend and the right to free speech.

"I didn't think he was going to hurt me or anything right there in the parking lot," my friend said. "But I didn't know for sure. I didn't know what to do.

"I was pretty shaken up, but I did my shopping. I figured it was like falling off a horse. I had to get back up or I'd be afraid the rest of my life. Would I go back there again at night? I don't know. I'd have to park right by the store. If I couldn't, I think I'd just drive on by."

She lost $7. But she also lost something worth much more.

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