A More Articulate Panhandler


There’s a new twist to public panhandling. The neighborhood scam artists are becoming more creative. Is it because the competition is stiffer? I mean, think of the expanding numbers on the public dole nowadays.This morning, I ran into two of the new breed. The first was in the Walgreen’s parking lot. He showed excellent courtesy, asking for my time and attention before beginning his sad tale of the stolen briefcase, the absence of resources, being far away from home and the lack of police cooperation. He kept my attention for a few minutes. I was captivated by the conundrums of his misery. But at some point, the tale wasn’t enough and even though courteous, he wasn’t charming and his old beat up Ford wasn’t convincing as a traveling kind of car. I said No.Fifteen minutes later, a chipper fellow walks into the little restaurant where I’m ordering eggs and grits. He’s too jovial and right away, I mark him. But he carried on, smiling and God-lovin and blessing everyone before he launched into his tale: his dear wife of 32 years not only was stricken with pancreatic cancer but liver failure, and he’s out early trying to defray the costs. Around here, if you mention God and bless people and thank them for being a good Christian, that gets you entree. Even the owner admitted that he didn’t usually allow “that” (panhandling) but he got blessed two times. Hard-nosed Ann just wanted those grits and eggs. But other patrons are stuffing bills into his box and slapping him on the back, all happy because they gave to a soul in need. Before I leave, Mr. Jovial is expanding on his scenario and now calling his wife of 32-years, the “dear little girl” and I wonder if he slipped up in the storyline.

The point is that panhandling or scamming is growing in its complexity, and its artists are developing a more inventive scenario. No longer do they hang out at busy intersections with beat-up signs and embattled expressions. That doesn’t cut it anymore. Too many people are legitimately poor. Too many people are competing – not in the act of begging – but in the culture of impoverishment. These legitimate poor – the nonworking craftspeople and underworked professionals, the migrating new veterans and the old vets with PTSD, the assembly line workers and new college graduates, the sold out corporate execs and the locked out tradesmen – these people are clogging the empathy channel of America. There are just too many and there’s less compassion, less patience and fewer free bucks.

The new breed of panhandlers, those who’ve turned begging into an art form and a living wage, recognize that they will be extinct without a shift in tactics. I wonder if there are underground meetings where these issues are discussed along with brainstorming sessions. Do they report findings on the most lucrative storylines (cancer and Christianity score high in the South)? Have they reached a consensus on what works? And how do they divvy up their work space?

It is not implausible that this group of street people (some of whom return to a home after their shift) have a union of sorts, engage in strategizing and are as reactive to the economy as the “rest of us.”  Unlike the rest of us, they’ve been here before. They are crafty, resourceful, adaptive. It might be wise for the rest of us to pay better attention to these folks. Give them credit for their entrepreneurial success. They have survived and thrived during the tough times. Our tough times, that is. Not only do they survive, they do so because the rest of us happily shower them with our diminishing revenue, and curse the government because we have so little.

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