May 312004

Exiting the bodega today I was accosted by a beggar, which is unusual in itself; I’ve lived in New York for twenty-odd years and by now wear an invisible sign that reads “Don’t Even THINK of Asking Me for Money.” Today’s mendicant hadn’t perfected his invisible-sign-reading skills, or maybe he had, because his opening line was, “I don’t want money,” and he had me hooked.

“You don’t want money. What do you want then?”

“Coffee, juice, anything.”

“How do you plan to buy these things?”

“You can buy them for me.”

“OK, let me clarify. You don’t want money. You want consumer goods that must be purchased with money.”

“But you can buy them!”

And as he wandered off, a scene from The Jerk suddenly, unbidden, flashed through my mind. Steve Martin, having made his fortune from the Opti-Grip, has lost it all in a class-action suit (paging Wally Olson!), for making customers permanently cross-eyed. His wife, Bernadette Peters, sits despondent in an empty living room as the repo men cart away their worldly goods. “It isn’t the money I’ll miss,” she says. “It’s all the stuuuuuuuuff!”

  7 Responses to “Adventures in Mendicancy”

  1. You mean I’m gonna stay this color?

  2. So, what is money anyway, except for the "stuff" it represents? A dollar bill has the same intrinsic worth as a $100 – a piece of fancy paper printed in fancy ink.

  3. Not that I’m advocating helping the guy, but you’re missing the obvious point of his pitch: that by giving him food instead of cash, you’re assuring that your donation won’t be spent on drugs or alcohol.

  4. Seconding MK’s point, your panhandler is just the opposite of the one who accosted me in San Francisco 25 years ago saying "I ain’t gonna lie to you, I just want some money so I can get drunk." That almost worked, though my admiration for his honesty didn’t quite overcome my natural aversion to financing such a crass plan.

    I wonder if yours was bluffing. Around 20 years ago, a panhandler in D.C. said "I’m sooooo hungry, please help me get something to eat", but when I offered him half a ham sandwich and an apple out of the brown bag I was carrying, he refused with open contempt.

  5. My wife and I have actually offered panhandlers food numerous times. We never offer $. We have a kid (now 2) and always have snacks in our car to tithe. About 70 to 80% accept the food and we have seen most of those who take it eat it. In one case, we walked back across a panhandler’s path and he thanked us, saying that it was the best thing he had eaten in a long time. Others look on us with contempt. The ones who accept food and throw it out are the ones that piss me off.

    I always assume that the food eaten by panhandlers will ultimately make a lovely and redolent sidewalk design when coupled with drugs or alcohol.

  6. You should’ve directed him to foodstamp office.

  7. Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.

    Teach a man to fish, you won’t see him for the whole weekend.

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