Back in the 70's, while living in a small west Georgia community, I went to a party where I met a guy who was a classmate and friend to mutual friends. He was your typical bright-eyed and articulate hippie type, likable at first meeting. The friends were all excited that he was there and greeted him like a long lost brother. In small towns, everyone knows or knows about everyone else in the town and I had never heard anyone mention this guy so I was curious about him and his story.
I opened the conversation in typical American fashion by asking "What do you do?" "I panhandle," was his answer, which somewhat took me aback. "You mean you're a bum?" I replied. "No," he said, "I travel around the country and panhandle for a living."
Until that time I had never given panhandling much thought. Panhandlers were mostly dirty people whom you tried to avoid on the street. This was way before the "homeless" became commonplace and panhandlers were considered either hobos or bums. Now, there's a distinction between hobos and bums. Hobos choose the lifestyle of riding the rails and will bristle if you lump them in with Bums, who at the time, were comprised mostly of drunks and winos. Anyway, I divert.
I asked the young man how he traveled, assuming he hitch hiked or rode the rails. He said, "Some hitching, but mostly Greyhound." Curious as to how he could afford to ride the bus, I pressed the issue. "Really?" I replied. "Well how much money can you make panhandling?" He thought a moment and then answered, "I'm not really sure, but last year I made about $35,000." Now, I really was taken aback. This guy was making nearly twice what I was earning as the manager of the local chamber of commerce, income tax-free! These are 1970's dollars folks. The equivalent of about $70,000 today.
I was reminded of this conversation by an article in the local press about modern-day panhandlers right here in River City and the turf wars that sometimes erupt between them. There was one guy who had a desirable corner in a ritzy area at the beach who was pulling in over $800 a week. He had it down. He actually lived on the west side of town and commuted to the beach to panhandle, returning home at night. During the day he would hide most of his cash in a nearby wooded area because if he got arrested, the cops would confiscate it and he would never see it again. But he had a wad of crumpled bills totaling more than $100 in his pocket which he showed the reporter to prove how lucrative his spot was.
He talked about the psychology of begging, of how the big difference between him and most street beggars is that he intimidates people into giving by scowling and thrusting his tin can at them. He claimed that being meek and looking for mercy doesn't work.
It has been my habit for many years to give anyone who approached me on the street a dollar. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I'm just in a pissy mood or simply don't have a dollar in my pocket. The other night, while in downtown Gatorville, a really tattered looking man approached me as I walked up the street carrying a freshly bought cup of coffee. He asked me if I could please spot him a cup of coffee. I gave him a dollar. He said, "Bless you."
When I left my meeting and returned to the car I found this note, scribbled on a piece of cardboard, on the windshield. I think I will continue to give a bum a dollar.