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Monday, October 3, 2016

Panhandler Anxiety Parts 1 & 2

Panhandler Anxiety: Hardluck Lesbian

On a quest for picture frames, I parked by Michael’s. Looking up from my iPhone, I saw a couple of yuppie women (now known as soccer moms?) tying up a conversation about dog grooming. Back to the phone. Suddenly the women were gone, rapidly, scattering like prey spotting an oncoming predator. Now I would be the prey. A wobbling female approached me with intermittent teeth and an aura of motivation. Up came that feeling, that fizzy intestinal dread-knot: I would now be panhandled, but with what result?

Over my half-open window, I beheld her, and she began. I have been trapped like this before. I hate to be rude, but I also have little patience for bullshit. Not only do these panhandler humans usually get money from me, they leave me feeling conned, ripped off, bamboozled. Not so much because they scored some small amount of cash from me, but because I always sense I’m being lied to, and I think that is part of their game. Sometimes I even assume that, when streetpeople cross paths behind Brown Derby or under laundromat awnings or wherever, they trade strategies—as in, which tales of woe get the best results. Why do I always feel this way? It probably started back when I was just as poor as they were, when their lack of a cigarette seemed no more urgent than my lack of a cold drink. But now that I am much more middle-classy, I still can’t stop parsing the theatricality of the various need-ploys that arise.

My mind racing, I rolled up my window. She immediately assumed that this was to shut her down, but it was actually just the current step in normal car-parking procedure. I planned on hearing her out, but now she was walking away, with a bit of piss in her gait. I climbed out of the car and promptly locked my keys inside, instantly realizing my mistake. Simultaneously I was trying to ask her what she needed, while also experiencing potent “aw, shit!” rage that might have gone about 30% of the way toward killing her. But instead of slinging her to the pavement by the shirt and yelling, “I JUST LOCKED MY KEYS IN MY CAR BECAUSE MY PANHANDLER ANXIETY BLEW MY FUCKING MIND,” I said something like, “Hang on, what do you need?”

Apparently I had a strong subconscious desire to be five bucks poorer, because I could have just let her keep walking. Some preliminary stammering later, she was asking for money in the most roundabout way possible—a shabby, hard-luck narrative, something involving a bus ticket that would get her child back from another state, or take her back to said other state to find her child, I think. I’ve heard a few variations on the bus ticket theme before. Bus tickets figure heavily in the panhandling universe, which makes perfect sense x2: buses are all about carrying poor people (truthiness), plus the NIMBY bonus—giving this person money sends this person away from me by bus. Some towns even have programs where they round up homeless people and give them bus tickets which must be used to leave town, under threat of jail. So, adding a bus ticket to a panhandling narrative gives you more buck for your bang, in my estimation.

This is about the time I remembered, mercifully, that one of my back doors was probably unlocked. Thank fuck, it was! Keys back in fist, I was able to come to grips with the woman. I finally just gave her five bucks. That’s honestly something for me, because I still scold myself for breaking the five dollar mark at lunchtime. However, in the adrenalized afterglow of not quite locking my keys inside my car, five dollars down felt like a goddamn breeze of enfranchised relief.

After completing my Michael’s mission, I hit the nearby Walmart by way of the Nursery. Maybe 15-20 minutes had passed, and there by the houseplants and shovels was my sponsored lady-friend, hug-hanging on her lesbian lover. They were buying some stuff that didn’t seem highly conducive to bus travel, such as houseplants. That’s fine, I just think they should have invited me over to see what they’re doing with the decor.

Of course I wish I could say “honesty is the best policy” to beggars, but I suppose that wouldn’t be honest. Had she come up and asked for money because she and her girlfriend had a list of housewares they wanted, then I might have just said, “No shit? Cuz at your age, I had an apartment in Florida furnished entirely by dumpster diving!” Except, when my sister found out I was sleeping on the floor-ida (see, it’s easy to write for Bob’s Burgers), she phone-ordered me a futon… so maybe we all need sponsors.

But maybe all I really want is for panhandlers to be required to listen to some story of mine before getting my money. I mean, I’m the one with the cash, so they should have to listen to me and pretend I’m smart as any self-help guru, because next to them I’m obviously Suze Orman, with my paid-off automobile and my numerous teeth. If Hardluck Lesbian had any tenacity, I would say, “Hey, I have aloe vera plants and a wandering jew—I don’t know if that’s racist to call a plant that, but that’s what it’s called—I can give you starts from both those plants for free. All you need is, like, two cups of dirt.” But then, Suze Orman doesn’t pay people to listen to her—they pay HER. So I guess I’m no Suze Orman, but I still think beggars should have to listen to me, maybe for a good, long lecture.

Panhandler Anxiety 2: Return of Hardluck Lesbian

In another stage of life and in a crappier car, I used to drive many a Sunday evening to buy a $5 pizza at Cheezie’s on S. Kimbrough. It was cheap, but more importantly, it was great pizza, but most importantly, it was cheap. Once, with my pizza upon my hand like a waiter’s tray, I emerged to a lovely sundowny moment, precursor to driving the pizza home in the passenger seat like a tasty date, precursor to devouring this esteemed pizza with my wife during Sunday night cartoons. This was before we had a tiny daughter who ushered in the current stage of life where we buy multiple pizzas for Sunday evening even though she eats shockingly little, and the television is barely audible over her incessant yammering.

Halfway to the car, I looked across the street, as if warned by spider-sense or peripheral vision—directly at a heteronormative couple. They were both looking at me, targeting me like a Womp Rat back home in their T16s (cashing in on Star Wars fever). I instantly knew—THEY knew I could afford pizza. Now I would be the prey. I beelined for my car with the exact same gait as before, but with less sincerity since I would have preferred to run. (Fantasy response: Throw my pizza at them like a frisbee, yell, “Take it, then!” and then march right back into Cheezie’s and say, “Okay, make me another goddamn pizza!)

Long story short, they caught me as I took the driver’s seat, and started in on some kind of woeful tale about a vehicle breakdown. Being already ten seconds into a mild fight-or-flight quickening and now trapped in my car by whatever awkward hybrid of embarrassment and courtesy that keeps one from public shrieking, I channeled my dad and turned into a dick. I interrupted them with, “I don’t care—just tell me what you need!” I think I ended up giving them a couple of dollars; more importantly, I demonstrated my first ever refusal to submit to panhandle protocol. Part of the issue was the rising discomfort of being trapped in my car with delicious, guilt-scented pizza; part was my ever-growing skepticism over the tales told by panhandlers, and that new guilt forming over my own stingy unwillingness to listen.

The whole phenomenon just wrecks my brain. It’s a gordian knot with its own feedback loop: I want to believe people/I know that if they are being honest, panhandler protocol is debasing and demoralizing for them/I don’t mind giving someone some money if they really need it/I suspect they find rather quickly that “grooming” the truth leads to more success in gathering donations/I worry that the enterprise of panhandling is a game best played by the biggest liars/I feel guilt for judging them without actually knowing their circumstances/The only way to discern the truth is to engage this person on a deeper level and risk entangling oneself in their messy life which is very likely an expression of mental illness/etc.

Years later, (and now over a year ago), I was trapped again by the nomadic needy. Again I ran aground on my own refusal to submit to panhandler protocol. I was at work, throwing some junk off the back of my pickup and into the nearby dumpster. Lo, there approached a meager little person—a girl of indeterminate age on a bicycle, and not quite a bike for an adult. Just when I realized she was homing in on me rather than passing through, it came back to me that I’d spotted this depressing anthropoid several times over the past few days, from a distance, around the village. Now that she was upon me, I immediately knew what she’d been up to in the neighborhood. Despite my hobo-esque workstyling, which my wife calls “Your Homeless Look,” I would now be out-bummed.

She was visiting from out of state—Florida? Someplace south of here—staying at a relative’s house nearby, as indicated by a directional shrug. She should have used dental ambition as a motivating factor, because her opened mouth, while not beyond redemption, was a solid 4 on the scale of orthodontic calamity. A perhaps malnourished, androgynous womanling with very little traction in the American Power Aesthetic. By nature, I should feel sympathy for if not kinship with such a being, at least until that moment when her sales pitch begins.

“I hate to ask…” was in there somewhere, then pointing out the tweenish dirtbike she rode was part of her plight/schtick. “I even had to borrow this kid’s bike to get around…” In that hot reflected light from the white gravel driveway, she was fumbling her delivery rather soundly. Whatever necessity she wished to portray floundered in a mostly tongue-tied blather. It just made me impatient. Even accounting for the way I felt a little bit trapped, something in her approach made me irrationally angry. Having paused to listen, I went back to pulling junk off my tailgate to throw it out, maintaining my “busy look” to appear Very Busy instead of the actuality of Moderately Busy. Then the English teacher in me started coming out (I wanted her to understand that she was failing miserably to construct a winning argument)—but was overtaken by my inner Guy Who Just Wants to Take His Pizza Home and Eat It.

“God, just shut up and tell me what you need. What are you asking for?” Money, of course. But I don’t think she had gotten so far as to ask for money, almost a minute into her hapless spiel about where she was going and where she had been. 

I don’t even recall what she said. I had wrecked her momentum, and she never recovered. Finally, I just leveled with her. “I feel like there’s no way for me to know if anything you say is true.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” she agreed, maybe too easily.

“It’s just goddamn ridiculous, to have to sort through a bunch of bullshit stories and try to figure out why this... person is… I don’t know—bugging me!”

“Sorry to bother you,” she said with extra defeat as she walked away, pushing her less-than-adult bicycle, now very much like a whipped dog. At this point she finally seemed more genuine. I felt guilty, coming quite close to calling her back and giving her some money. But I didn’t.

After she left, I wondered, Why had I taken such a harsh turn with her? Was I developing an appetite for crushing the weak, like the glee I feel when I smash a mosquito? I hoped not. I had a track record of giving to people—nothing impressive, but enough to disprove sadism. It took me an hour or two to realize: that had been, I believe, the same irksome tragedoid I’d encountered at Michaels so many moons ago. What a twerp, revealing the jerk in me. But I felt justified in some ways, since she continued to misrepresent herself as Less Than a Career Panhandler.