I CAN TELL WHEN the kids are staring. I might be in the front seat, occupied with driving and traffic and one of Dr. Laura's radio diatribes against a middle-aged guy who lives with his mother, but without looking in the rearview mirror, I can tell when something on the side of the road has caught the kids' attention and freaked them out in a mild sort of way. They suddenly become quiet in the back seat.
Maybe they see another kid in a wheelchair. Or an old man hitchhiking. Or two adults having an argument. Or two 20-somethings with Manic Panic in their hair.
In my van, the sight of a panhandler seems to be a cue for a moment of sober introspection. I just know the kids are sitting in the back seat, staring at that guy in the median strip with the cardboard sign, wondering why he's there.
But so far -- that's 10 years and about 100,000 miles of dad driving -- they haven't popped the question. They've just stared. I've been spared.
Then Mike, a friend of my son's, ended the silent streak about 4 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday.
"Why doesn't that guy go get a job sweeping floors? Why does he just stand there looking for other people's money?"
I had just spent about $10 on a round of milk shakes at the Double T Diner in Catonsville. It was a hot, muggy afternoon, and rush-hour traffic had kicked into gear on Route 40 West.
We pulled up to a busy intersection near a busy shopping center and, of course, from that vantage, America looked as prosperous as all economic indicators indicate we are: People in cars -- driving to their jobs, driving home from jobs, cell phones to their ears. People getting out of cars -- to shop, to consume, to spend without end.
Every day in the midst of this are panhandlers. They used to be part of the city scene, almost exclusively. About 10 years ago, they started appearing on suburban streets, and it was as if they had all dropped in by parachute at the same time. The panhandlers were generally greeted in the suburbs with scorn and derision.
People in Baltimore -- particularly the owners of restaurants and small businesses, visitors to Harborplace and Orioles fans on their way to Camden Yards -- came to despise them, too.
If you gave them money, you were viewed as weak, an enabler, supporting a scam artist too lazy to find a job. A friend of mine was loudly, angrily and publicly chided for giving a panhandler a couple of quarters on the way to an O's game. The Downtown Partnership asked the public to stop giving to panhandlers, asserting that most of them were drug addicts or alcoholics. I interviewed some and wrote columns on the issue a few years ago. The reader mail indicated a good deal of hostility toward panhandlers.
I seldom see anyone give them money anymore.
And yet, the panhandlers are still there. Strangely, they seem to be out in new force this summer.
The one on Route 40 was particularly pathetic -- about 35 years old, his brown hair matted and sweaty, his clothes heavy and damp. He had a 1,000-yard gaze and made no movement. He cradled the standard-issue cardboard sign, "Homeless Please Help" in his arms.
The kids -- my two, 10 and 7, and Mike, also 10 -- saw him as we coasted to a stop. There was a moment of silence.
Then, "Why doesn't that guy go get a job sweeping floors? Why does he just stand there looking for other people's money?"
My kids said nothing.
"I don't know, Mike," I said. "Does he bother you?"
"Why doesn't he go find a real job? He could sweep floors in a 7-Eleven and make more money."
"Could he?" I asked. "How do you know? Do you know how much money you can make in a 7-Eleven sweeping floors?"
"No," Mike said, "but it's better than standing out there in the heat and the traffic."
"True, but maybe the guy doesn't think right, Mike. Maybe he can't hold a job. ... You can't just assume all panhandlers are the same, that they could all keep a job if they wanted to."
By now, the light had changed and we left the panhandler behind.
I can't remember exactly what I said after that, but it went something like this: Unless you stop to talk to a panhandler at length, you don't know what he's about, so you shouldn't make a hard judgment about a man or a woman from a distance, and in a split second. A panhandler might really be poor, or he might be a drug addict or an alcoholic. He might be a con artist, but he might also be mentally ill; he might hear voices. He might have a lazy mind, no ambition to do anything else with his life. Sorry, kids, but this one is complicated.
"Are they really homeless?" my daughter asked from the back seat.