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January 28, 2004

I'm going to hell

He was standing on the sidewalk, eyes fixed on a point on the wall opposite, holding a Starbucks cup out in supplicant pose.

I sped up ever so slightly.

It's easier to slip past panhandlers if you walk a little faster, avoid eye contact, stare directly at a point on the horizon in the general direction you're headed. It almost worked this time. I had just crossed his line of sight, and was nearly in the clear, and then came the question.

Can you spare any change?

And I could. But I didn't want to.

When you're asked for change on a San Francisco street, if you can actually spare the money, you have the following choices:
Give the change
Tell the person you could give them money, but choose not to
Lie and say you don't have it
Ignore the person

I choose the last one, usually. It's easier. I can tell myself they'll think I didn't hear them, or that I didn't speak English, or that I had invisible earbud microphones on and was listening to Hendrix.

"Can you spare any change?"

I walked past, not responding. A few steps and I was free! Free to walk past four more panhandlers before the train station, to be sure, but success is measured out in teaspoons.

And then I heard him say, in a slightly more subdued tone of voice, "Have a good day anyway."

Back in the day when I was that guy with the cup, I saw right through people like the man I have become.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 28, 2004 09:44 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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:-) My relationship to panhandlers has changed several times. I used to give them money because it made me feel I was good person. Then I didn't give them money because they might not need it. Then I didn't give them money because I shouldn't be using them to make myself feel I was a good person. Then I did give them money because they might need it after all. Now I give them money because I have plenty and I need to be able to give it away without thinking, even for a moment, about whether they need it or not.

Though that makes it sound like a sequence, and frequently all five of those things happen at once. The mind is such a muddle.

But anyway. This is a beautifully written piece. Such a gift, you have.

Posted by: dale at January 29, 2004 05:27 AM
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Where I live, there are no beggars. So when I go to cities it is one of the shocks I face. I try to give them something, but this time I was so cold I didn't want to stop and take gloves off and dig change out of my bag. Then I felt bad for lying or ignoring and all that stuff. Eventually I just emptied all that incredibly heavy Canadian coinage into my pocket, and just gave it out, except not to two guys outside the Basilica who were definitely professionals and not needy at all. I wonder what I'd do if I lived around this poverty (or subterfuge) every day.

Posted by: beth at January 29, 2004 07:40 PM
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Sometimes I give panhandlers food or water, if I have a candy bar or an unopened bottle handy. I do feel guilty if I fail to acknowledge their presence as another human being, though at times (like waiting for a bus) I regret having done so (it seems to encourage whiskery old guys with bad breath to ramble away at me while standing too close). No matter what, such encounters make me feel uncomfortable. I suppose it's appropriate that they do, though; it _is_ a face-to-face encounter with another being in difficult circumstances. If these encounters didn't bother me I'd figure something was wrong with me.

Posted by: Rana at January 30, 2004 02:25 PM
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