It wasn't until I heard the cup clatter on the street behind us that I realized the panhandler had thrown his coffee. I whipped around and saw the jumbo plastic travel mug bounce up, splash coffee toward us, and hit the ground again, the lid rolling away. My first thought was: it's a good thing no cars are coming, because it could have caused an accident. My second thought was: he threw it at my kids and me.
Safely across the street, and watching the man head down East Avenue away from us, I wondered: had I done something wrong? He had asked me for money and I had said no. Then we crossed the street and he threw the coffee. Should I have handled the encounter differently?
Wait. He was the one who was wrong, not me.
Perhaps you can say that I'm haunted by liberal guilt. To say that derisively, as if liberal guilt is a bad thing, is to ignore the fact that any society with a divide between the haves and the have-nots contains inherent conflicts. There's the physical conflict --- where poverty and lack of coverage for mental health, et al, fuels crime. Then there's the philosophical conflict --- what some call liberal guilt --- where the privileged grapple with crafting the best ways to provide opportunities for and services to the disadvantaged.
When I am approached on the street by someone asking for money, I'm aware that if America ever had a good delivery system for providing disadvantaged people with jobs and homes and health care, it doesn't now. Look to Congress for a quick example. One month and one day after Katrina swept through New Orleans, Congress, shirts still drenched with crocodile tears wept for America's poor, rejected an amendment to continue funding community services block grants at current levels.
This effectively and immediately cut funding by 50 percent in most states (and 75 percent in the 13 smallest states) to programs like rental assistance, food stamps, emergency housing, and food banks. These programs are, in many states, helping people displaced by Katrina, and Congress knows it.
I'm not such a Lefty masochist, however, that I think because this guy is poor and desperate I deserve to have him throw coffee at me. That's how some conservatives might paint liberals, but they'd be wrong. My desire to reduce the shameful and growing gap between rich and poor has more to do with civic duty than it does with self-flagellation.
On the other hand, I doubt I'd ever take advantage of the law against aggressive panhandling, even though it was crafted by City Council with an element of humanity. Once ticketed, these folks report to an adjudicated court rather than the municipal office. This way judges can refer offenders to the social service system if needed.
Still, though, with poverty rates up for the fifth straight year, jobs draining out of the region, and local social services gutted, asking for money on the street may be the only way for some people to survive. And I'm no narc.
Not everyone follows my line of thought. They say all people begging for money are addicts, drunks, or lazy cons working a lucrative scam. Some probably are. In that case, advocates for the poor argue, take the guy to a deli and buy him a sandwich; he gets lunch and you get peace of mind all for only five bucks.
Why didn't I do that instead of blowing him off?Another factor in the difficult calculus of beggars and social conscience, hunger and affluence, and individual responsibility and society, is children. I'm different when I'm with my kids out in the world. More open in some ways and more closed in others.
When you're with kids, you can stand in the middle of a city plaza and watch pigeons circling for 20 minutes with no thought to time or weather or what a goofball you look like. Conversely, when you're with kids and someone approaches you aggressively on the sidewalk you just want to get the hell away. No one gets the benefit of the doubt when I'm with my kids.
A bit of background: I've been mugged in other cities by people posing as panhandlers. In one case, while I was reaching for my wallet, an accomplice sneaked up behind me and nearly whacked me with a board. I saw it out of the corner of my eye and ran away.
So when the guy approached on East Avenue, I was leery. He walked on fast, jittery legs. At the time, he reminded me of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. I realize now this was probably a symptom or side effect. He wobbled ahead of me and stopped abruptly. The stubble on his pale, gaunt cheeks was flecked with gray.
"Please. I need money," he said. I looked him straight in the eye, like you're supposed to, and said, "No, I'm sorry."
"It's not for, it's not for," he said, almost whining. "I'm hungry."
"No," I said leading my kids around him. "I'm sorry."
I said no to a hungry man in front of my children. That's the toughest part of this for me. To them I am a walking Wegmans, a fountain of food. It was confusing to them that I didn't help this man.
"He can get a job, can't he?" one of them asked later.
"I don't know," I said. I don't know if there are jobs here anymore. I don't know if he can afford the medication or rehab that he needs to stay on a job. What I do know is that I didn't stop and help this guy because he scared me and because I was with my kids and because I knew all I had in my wallet was twenties.