If you’re able to associate the photo on this column with my visage, please tell me what you see. Do I have the letters S-U-C-K-E-R stamped across my forehead?
Let me explain. If I were in a crowd of say 50 people, the one panhandler in the group would find me to hit me up for a couple of bucks–to buy a meal. Yeah, right!
Here’s a classic example. I was visiting with a friend in the then-IGA parking lot when a bro approached me, gave me a hard-luck story and asked if I could help finance his bus ticket to Santa Fe. I meant to pull out a dollar, but all I had was a five, which he quickly transferred to his pocket. He promised to make things right: “I’ll pay you back, Ese, and even if I don’t, God for sure will pay you.”
He knows how to cover all his bases.
Some people refuse to give cash to panhandlers, of which Las Vegas has its share, most of them posted in popular locations. Others will chide the panhandler with, “Why don’t you get a job, like me?” What does a person do when the only way to get into a downtown restaurant is through a beggar? Do we feign busyness? Do we avoid eye-contact? Do we ignore, or do we promise to give him or her some spare change on the way out?
There appear to be two classes of mendicants: those who are unable to work, and the more-experienced hustlers. Those are the ones I wish I could avoid.
My parents taught us never to walk past someone in need. But Mom, what if the beggar has more money stashed away than we do? Mom would answer that in such a case, we were to give the beggar the benefit of the doubt.
But why is it that all beggars, when explaining why they need the money, come up with needing a meal, a cup of coffee, gas money, or a bus ticket? Has any street person ever approached you and said, “I need some money so I can buy a bottle of cheap booze and a pack of cigarettes and possibly score on some drugs”?
Having Mom’s admonition in our subconscious makes it difficult to ignore a plea for help, even though we suspect most of the time the money isn’t going to the stated purpose. Some people will counter with, “You need money? Okay, I’ll buy you a meal.”
There are numerous biblical injunctions to feed the hungry. On Sundays we hear people say, “If my money helps just one person, I don’t care how many others are going to use the money for booze or drugs.” The issue transcends Christianity. A common theme in pre-Christian literature deals with helping the needy.
During the days when hobos made their rounds, they devised a unique language: a symbol scrawled on a man’s fence might indicate to other hobos that the resident is a soft touch. A jagged line could signal that there’s a mean dog on the property. In fact, hobos have been known to be aggressive when they come across a house with the sign that reads: No panhandling allowed. or “No solicitors.”
Hobos know that only a person who feels vulnerable would need to put up such a sign. Translation: Since I’m susceptible, I hope this sign will protect me.
Let’s assume that beggars one meets on the street are indeed needy. Let’s overlook the notion that the man in tatters, who carries a sign indicating destitution is not one with a wad of bills ready for deposit.
In the final distillation, does a handout really help? Are we not simply feeding a craving and making that person even more dependent? Could our willingness to dole out money speed up the process through which alcohol destroys the man’s liver? “Give a man a fish . . .”
The social worker inside us will tell us that instead of a direct gift, we need to take people up on their offer to work for food. Instead of fishing out a dollar, let’s take them home and have them paint the porch, pick the pears or prune the plum tree. But that involves an investment of time, which most of us don’t have.
I’ll admit to a bit of a glow when, after stopping at a traffic light on Saint Francis Drive in Santa Fe, and I am able to give some change to a street person whose cardboard advertises his family’s hunger and hard luck, but yet he’s willing to work.
In some cases, the appearance of the disheveled children convinces us that they are indeed needy. Would anybody willingly stand in the hot sun all day, clothes in tatters, for any amount? And what if somebody were to say, “I’ll give you food if you chop my pile of wood”? Would the time away from his station prevent him from receiving extra money from motorists who simply believe it’s easier to give without strings than to turn the transaction into a business deal?
If a donation is supposed to provide a leg up, have we failed when every day for the next month we see the same person with the same sign, same kids and same degree of destitution? What’s a proper time-frame for reaching the goal?
As long as I live, I suspect I’ll remain an easy touch. The letters on my forehead will become bolder. Emotionally, I’m a soft touch; intellectually, I usually recognize a con man.
I wish I could end this column with a tip, a conclusive statement about “This is what I do when approached by a beggar.” Life in Las Vegas exposes us daily to numerous familiar types who ask for money. We all have different ways of dealing with them. What are some of your techniques?