Pulling off the ramp from I-70 to Emerson Avenue last Saturday I came upon a panhandler at the stoplight. He sat on the guardrail, a cane in one hand, a small sign in the other, hollow cheeks, goatee, and a baseball cap. He looked really, really tired. The sign, made of a piece of jagged corrugated cardboard looked to have been torn from the lid of a box and was scrawled with the words, "Vietnam Vet. Please help."
I rarely give money to panhandlers, have never settled my conflicted feelings about the whole encounter – the similarity to aggressive salespeople and pamphlet carrying evangelists – strangers asking you to do things with money and emotion that for me normally require more careful, private consideration. And there’s the ugliness of being the overfed guy in the shiny car soothing his middle-class guilt by handing money out the car window to poor people. Yet, something made me grab my wallet and a five-dollar bill and roll down my window.
“God bless you, sir," he said.
"Take care of yourself, brother,” I replied.
"I'm trying," he nodded.
The light turned green and I rolled my window up, and rolled away.
My mind tripped through a series of recriminations: I bet he's not a Vietnam vet – how much Jagermeister can you buy with $5? – does he have a meth monkey on his back? – and then I immediately hated myself a little for being so suspicious. We live in a curious cultural time in which we mistrust the poor as if they’re all lazy con artists. The pretty blonde anchors on FOX News spend their days shaming the poor, yet the Bible tells us to love and protect them. If I can ease a man’s suffering, I want to give. But another part of me wonders if my $5 bill is a crutch, added to his cane.
No sooner had I reached the arc of the overpass, I saw a younger man on the opposite ramp on the other side of I-70 with a cane in hand and a milk crate for a seat. He looked frail and tiny against the sprawling, bleak asphalt, interstate backdrop. His sign read, "Gulf War Vet. Lost my job. God Bless." A woman at the stoplight in a black urban assault vehicle was staring ahead awkwardly, pretending not to see the panhandler standing just a couple feet away.
I’ve been that lady before, too.
I was raised in a small Indiana town. I didn't encounter beggars and panhandlers until I did a college semester in London. There was a little bristle-chinned, raggedy-dressed man who tap danced on the corner of Queensway and Moscow Road in my Bayswater neighborhood, his jacket laid open on the sidewalk to catch change tossed by passersby. Sometimes a second elderly man played harmonica while the first guy danced a jig. One night walking home from the pub with beer swirling in my brain I saw the little tap-dancing raggedy-man curled up asleep on the sidewalk against the iron fence of Kensington Gardens Square.
My first week in London I threw change on the jacket each time I passed. But the novelty wore off and I realized if I dropped change in every basket, hat or hankerchief I'd soon be broke. And so I grew callous toward them and they became evermore invisible. Soon this small town Hoosier boy became another jaded big city resident, avoiding eye contact with the panhandlers and the homeless and giving nothing, leaving their care and maintenance to the tourists and social services.
It is so easy to grow callous. It’s all around us. Consider the insistence that folks on welfare be drug tested.
Assuming the poor are all drug addicts is just a taste of the inflated sense of superiority and accomplishment we in the middle class save for them. Nevermind that the early evidence from states that do the tests reveals it costs taxpayers more than it saves and finds few addicts. Critics said of George W. Bush: “He was born on 3rd base, but thinks he hit a triple.” Folks born in the middle and anointed with its blessings who call for drug testing of welfare recipients remind me of that quote.
If we’re going to test welfare recipients, why not test the wealthy farmers who take farm subsidies? Over 90% of farm subsidies go to large corporate farms. And why don’t we test the professional team owners and athletes whose stadiums are funded by taxpayers?
We clean up the welfare we give the rich by calling it “tax abatements,” and “subsidies,” and, “public/private partnerships,” but it’s taxpayer money being handed to people who haven’t specifically worked for it, assuming it will do good for the community. That’s welfare, for the rich. Had we tested those rich welfare folks, we might have caught Jim Irsay before he got arrested . . . the most recent time, anyway.
Of course, I wouldn’t roll down my window and hand Irsay a $5 bill if his private helicopter landed beside my car on an interstate ramp, but I’ve handed him far, far more than that through the taxes I’ve paid for the stadium his team plays in.
But of course, life is not so simple. We want things to be black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, so it’s all clean & easy to choose: “Opportunities were waiting for me to grab, so why are those poor folks complaining, and taking from me?” But the adult world is not so simple. There’s not a lot of black and white, just a lot of gray, and all of us pretending it’s clear cut so circumstances fit our prejudices.
It is maddening how much gray I see. Wish I didn’t. If I was better at seeing black and white I might give a $5 bill to every panhandler at every exit ramp until I was broke. Or I might harden my heart and see them as scam artists, too lazy to get a real job. Instead, I’m the guy giving out of an urge to relieve suffering, but wondering if I’m really making things better.