Overwhelmed by panhandlers

Somebody needs to stop me. My modest generosity is going to get me into trouble.

If “modest generosity” seems like a contradiction of terms, I apologize. What I’m trying to get across is that I’m an easy touch, but apparently my touching doesn’t do a whale of a lot of good.

Let me explain:

There’s an army of people in Las Vegas who get their sustenance by putting a hand out. They’re inescapable and unavoidable, at almost every Allsup’s convenience store in town; Better Stop generally has a few chronic beggars at the ready; some stand guard in front of Charlie’s Restaurant, Traveler’s Cafe, and other places with walking traffic.

Two nights ago, I went to gas up our car, in preparation for an early-morning trip to Santa Fe. Yes, I could have waited until morning but I realized something would prevent us from getting our foreign exchange students to the Santa Fe Railrunner station on time.

So, near midnight, I drove to Allsup’s and parked at the gas pump farthest from the entrance, where four men awaited. I’d barely gotten out of my car when two of the four sprinted toward me. I already knew their agenda: “Can you let me have a couple of bucks because I haven’t eaten all day?” or “My car (What car? I don’t see a car!) is out of gas and I need to get to Albuquerque because my wife is sick.”

And there are variations on that theme. The result often is that I whip out a couple of Presidential dollars, hand them over and wish them luck. Given the upcoming income tax filing deadline, I wonder if I can claim the hundreds of dollars I’ve parted with, in wishing these people good luck.

But this time, I tried a different tack: I drove off before they reached my car. One yelled out, “Let me help you put gas in your car.” I left, wondering about the odds of meeting yet another group of hard-up men at another station. I blamed the near confrontation on the hour I had chosen. It’s simply not in me to refuse helping my fellow man, regardless of the speciousness of his request. But when two of them approach me, and two more wait in the dugout, it becomes menacing.

I drove to another Allsup’s, then another, where there was no one offering to pump my gas or to try to relieve me of money. I’ve taken to carrying Presidential coins.

I have no doubt that Nancy and Debbie, tellers at the downtown Wells Fargo, know exactly what I’ve entered the bank for, each time they see me. I generally carry a roll of the coins to pay for meals and leave as tips. My regret, however, is that technology hasn’t evolved enough to allow patrons to insert those coins into machines that recognize them as real dollars.

The second consideration is that when I leave them as tips, the recipients inspect them, convinced that Señor Cheapo has left only a couple of quarters.

There are many anecdotes concerning my being asked for money. One is the request from a Santa Fe man who confronted me at a Souper Salad, asking for a meal. Like his Las Vegas counterpart (above), he also hadn’t eaten all day. “Sure, come join us; I’ll buy your meal,” I said. Well, it turns out his wife ­— or partner, or significant other — was soon to meet him, and he’d rather have the money instead.

And once, at Better Stop, a pair of well-dressed young ladies, parked at the pump, asked for gassistance, which my wife and I provided. We didn’t give them money; instead we handed over our active gas pump for a while. Their thanks were effusive, but somehow they stuck around the station, seeming ansty, apparently hoping we’d leave.

Soon, a couple of well-dressed, athletic young college-type men left the Burger King next door carrying several bags of take-out items, joined their partners and drove off. Hmmm. I wonder if the food also came free of charge.

Attending a recent mayoral forum, we heard a candidate assert that “there are three or four people in town who go around begging.” Sorry, but the man’s count was w-a-y off. I see that number of street people almost every time I gas up or eat out downtown.

I admit I’m part of the problem. I believe that etched on my forehead is the word “sucker,” visible only to panhandlers. I know of some people who simply ignore the mendicants. For me, it’s difficult to simply walk away, and I suppose I spur their dependence.

And I believe there are legions of other regular folk who find it easier to part with a few bucks than to say to the person, “Sure, but I need you to do some yard work first.”

Can we be sure that every coin we slip into their hands goes for the purchase and consumption of nutritious food? Is there a chance they use the money to buy booze and cigarettes? And that their daily takings far exceed what we ourselves might carry that day?

As is my wont, I’ve advanced anecdotes and posed questions without any substantive solution. I’ve heard my share of lectures about how it’s better to let a million con men and con women take advantage of us than to let even one person go hungry.

Yes, I’ve heard all that jazz before. But this week, as I pulled up to the farthest gas pump at Allsup’s and saw two much younger men making a beeline toward me, I became jittery.

I wondered, “What the hell has happened in this town that has created a sea of needy people who soon get to know me, recognize my car and display no compunction about asking for money — on a daily basis.

It’s true that soup kitchens and shelters do a good job in trying to stem the tide of hunger and homelessness.

But sometimes it’s overwhelming. Isn’t it?

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