“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
~ Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, stave 1
Like many people from a basically privileged background, I have a complicated relationship with poverty and homelessness. I mean, I’m against them, obviously, but when it comes to their eradication or even their alleviation, things can get a little … well, fraught. When I was little, and my dad was still in grad school, were definitely poor. Like foodstamps-and-subsidized-housing poor. Powdered-milk poor. In other words, grad-student-with-a-family-to-support poor. Which is a kind of poverty, for sure, and I’m sure it was stressful for my parents. But at the same time, as kids, my siblings and I never felt particularly deprived. We never had to worry about where our next meal was coming from, or where we’d be sleeping that night. We had clothes and shoes and enough money for school supplies. We were poor, but not destitute.
I grew up in a medium-sized University town in the southeast, so while homelessness wasn’t a huge issue, we would encounter the occasional panhandler while running errands or at the park. And the adults in my life approached the situation like a lot of us do: tense up, try to ignore it, and if you absolutely can’t avoid it, say “sorry” or “I don’t have any money,” or something similar, preferably while avoiding any direct eye contact with the person hitting you up. It’s an awkward solution to the “problem” of begging, and it points out the weird position beggars hold in our culture. They make us uncomfortable because they’re reminders of our own privilege, and also reminders of the serious chasms in our social policies and programs. The way my mom explained it to us was, we pay taxes to support programs and shelters that target the homeless and poverty-stricken members of the community, and we don’t give money to panhandlers because we want to encourage them to use the state and federal programs available to them. It sounded like a reasonable position. It just didn’t make the actual encounters any less embarrassing.
And so I maintained an uncomfortable and discomfiting relationship to begging for many years – not really thinking about it intentionally, but just going along with avoidance/ignoring as the “right” way to deal with strangers asking me for cash, or bus money, or help buying a ticket home, or whatever. Then, in grad school, I was walking down the street with a friend of mine (a New Yorker, which might have something to do with it), when we were approached by a panhandler, and instead of doing the awkward-privileged-white-person dance of evasion, he looked the person right in the eye, said “hang on, I’ll see what I’ve got,” pulled out his wallet, and gave the panhandler some money. This was a revelation. My friend was completely at his ease, no awkwardness whatsoever; he handed over the 3 or 4 dollars he had on him, accepted the panhandler’s thanks with a friendly smile, and kept on moving. On other occasions I witnessed similar encounters, and if my friend had cash on him, he’d always give a little to the person asking for it. And if he didn’t, he’d just tell them that, all with the same ease of manner and – most significant to me – all while treating the panhandler absolutely as a human being, a person worthy of respect and courtesy. It made me realize that my discomfort with what I’d seen as the standard way of approaching the homeless/destitute/panhandlers/etc. was less about the exchange of money, and more about the treatment of “those people” as somehow less than people like me … or, alternatively, as con artists trying to scam me out of my hard-earned cash. Untouchables or scammers – that’s mostly how panhandlers get treated in this country, wouldn’t you say?
Anyway, about 15 years ago I started consciously trying to change my attitudes and behaviors around panhandling. I don’t carry cash very often, but when I do have it, and someone asks me for help, I’ll give them some. And even when I don’t have any, I do my best to treat the person asking me for money with the same courtesy I’d extend to any other stranger I encounter out in the world. What’s interesting to me is how hard it still is to remind myself not to go into avoidance mode, even though I’ve been consciously trying to change my ways for over a decade. I still have an interior “ACK” response when someone approaches me for money. Kind of the same response I have to door-to-door salesmen, now that I think about it. Except that beggars aren’t working on commission. I frankly can’t imagine what it would feel like to be so down and out – or even so temporarily short of cash – that I’d ask a stranger for money. And that’s sort of the point. I *can’t* imagine it. I have no idea, so who am I to judge the morality or sincerity of the person asking? I don’t know anything about them, other than that they want me to give them money, that for some reason they need some help and they’ve chosen to ask me for it. I try – not always successfully – to see the request as a kind of compliment (“that person looks kind”) rather than an insult (“that person looks like an easy mark”).
Which brings me to the encounter I had the other day at McDonald’s. I’d brought my three-year-old, Sylvia, there for a quick lunch before a doctor’s appointment, and as a special treat we were eating inside the restaurant (Sylvia really digs that). We were about 1/2 way through our meal, when a young woman approached our table and said something that I couldn’t quite hear. She looked pretty put together – stylish casual outfit, headphones playing something pop-y, etc. I thought maybe she was asking me for the time or something, so I said, “I’m sorry, what?” and she said, “I was wondering if you could help me,” and at this point I still wasn’t sure if she wanted money or to ask me about my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, so I said, somewhat ungracefully, “Help you how?” and she took a little step closer, and lowered her voice like she was scared of being overheard, and said, “I thought maybe you could help me … get lunch … for me and my twins …”
Now, I’m not going to lie to you: my first thought was “you’re dressed and accessorized pretty well to be asking me for lunch money.” Which is an ugly damn thought, and I was ashamed of it almost as soon as I thought it. So I said, “hang on a minute,” and dug out my wallet, and counted out the 6 dollar bills I had in there, and said “Six dollars is all I’ve got, but you can have it.” And smiled at her as she took the money. She thanked me, and that was the last that I saw of her. Sylvia asked, “Who was that lady?” And I said, “That was just someone who needed some help with getting her lunch,” and that was that, until we were leaving the McDonald’s and a man who’d apparently witnessed the interaction stopped us and said he just wanted to thank me for my actions, and he knew Jesus blessed us and it was good to see someone so generous. Which made me feel sort of embarrassed, but also sort of warm inside.
I don’t know. Maybe that woman was scamming me. Maybe she took my six dollars and went to the liquor store across the street and spent it on booze. Maybe she didn’t even have twins. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. It felt right to give her that money. It felt right to explain it to my daughter the way I did. I guess I’ve hit a point in my life where I’d rather be a sucker than feel like a Scrooge. Mr. Dickens would surely approve.