The Art of Panhandling Reaches New Highs--and Lows

A friend of mine was pumping his own gas about 8 at night in San Clemente when a man approached him. He said he needed some gas money and asked if my friend could help him out.

My friend says that he's the kind of guy who avoids conversation or even minimal eye contact with such solicitors but that he's also usually a soft touch for some spare change.

And that's what he did with this guy--he fumbled in his pocket and fished out a buck and change.

To which the stranger said, "I was hoping you had a ten."

Story No. 2 involves another friend who was in the parking lot at The City Shopping Center in Orange. A man with greasy hands approached and said he needed a battery for his car and surmised he could probably get one for as cheap as $36.95 at an auto parts store. He asked my friend for a contribution to the cause. My friend chipped in a couple bucks.

Wait, I'm not done. You haven't heard story No. 3 yet.

That involves the same friend, who was in a shopping center parking lot in Santa Ana last week when a woman carrying an infant approached him and a colleague. She offered to sell them a car stereo so she could pay for car repairs and then drive to Riverside to visit another child of hers.

Clearly, we have created a whole new generation of panhandlers who have taken the art of asking strangers for money to new creative and presumptuous heights. As my put-upon friend says, "Whatever happened to 'Brother, have you got a dime?' "

Surely, that time-honored appeal has both succinctness and pathos potential. Implicit in it is the idea that we're all part of the family of man and that things are so bad that even 10 cents would help out. Given that, most people would be more likely to make a larger contribution.

On the other hand, "Brother, can you spare a Delco Energizer?" is not going to induce much sympathy. You could infer from that that the person has a car, which means he's not destitute. A request like that is starting to sound more like your deadbeat cousin, who's always got an emergency but never the cash to handle it.

Historians will probably be able to document when panhandlers began upgrading their stories. When I was growing up, you never heard anything more complicated than "Can you help a guy with some change?" If they wanted to be specific on a commodity to be purchased with your change, it was invariably "a cup of soup."

As a kid, I remember giving guys on the street some change and watching them make a beeline for the liquor store to purchase the soup. As years went by, I quit giving them anything, rationalizing that I didn't want to contribute to their soup addiction.

But today's street people often don't have that aura of supplication about them. Like the guy my friend ran into in San Clemente, the offering of something less than a 10-spot may be greeted with displeasure, if not outright scorn. One senses that the day may not be far off when those who are hit up will write checks to the requesting party and then be asked to produce at least two pieces of ID.

The introduction of children into the panhandling equation also makes things sticky for the potential giver. If you knew for a fact that the asker was truly impoverished and that the child's fate was hanging in the balance, you might feel bound to donate. But then you'd start asking yourself, "Would even a dollar make any difference?"

Just about the time you'd decided you might offer a dollar, you'd start wondering, "What if she's just using this child as a prop, a sympathy ploy?"

That thought would make me mad, to the point of not wanting to give anything. In the aforementioned case of my friend who was solicited by the woman with the infant, he should have asked some follow-up questions. For example, what was her other child doing in Riverside and did she really need to visit her?

My suspicion is that had he pressed her, he would have uncovered some holes in her story. Who knows, maybe it wasn't even her infant she was carrying. In fact, could it have been a doll? Did he really see the child or just something wrapped in a blanket?

Everybody has their own method of dealing with panhandlers. As a rule, I don't give them anything. Then I feel guilty the rest of the day. I've tried to come to grips with why I don't give; the closest I can come is that it seems degrading to give another human being some spare change and that by saying no I somehow avoid diminishing them.

I wonder how that will play on Judgment Day.

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