You Panhandle the Truth!

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It is the season of giving! We gave thanks last week, and now, for the next month, we must give money. People become very charitable during the holidays. United Way, Goodwill, The Salvation Army, all of these organizations are practically overwhelmed by donations in December. Why, poor people eat like kings this time of year! Then in January they go back to starving.

Here in Portland, the season of giving never stops, because we have more panhandlers per capita than any other city in the nation, according to the Department of Statistics I Just Made Up. The panhandling situation has reached such epidemic proportions that the panhandlers are now going door-to-door.

I’m not referring to the people who want money in exchange for a product or service. Door-to-door salesmen have been a part of American life for decades. The death of a salesman was even the subject of a famous play (“The Crucible”).

Nowadays, most salesmen are more like salesboys. When I was at my parents’ house in California for Thanksgiving, I personally turned away two such teenagers, one selling Christmas trees, the other magazine subscriptions. To the former I explained that my dear sainted crazy mother puts up about 10 Christmas trees every year, all over the house, and that we don’t need any more, thank you. To the latter I just said no. I didn’t really have an anecdote to share with him.

So these are not panhandlers. I don’t even know why I brought them up. What I’m really talking about is how a few weeks ago, an actual panhandler came to my door, wanting money in exchange for nothing.

He was a grizzled man of about 45, and he explained that he’d been bitten by a dangerous spider, necessitating a trip to the emergency room. Whatever Oregon’s healthcare-plan-for-poor-people is had covered the hospital costs, but it had not provided for the medication he now needed. He was wondering if I could spare 10 dollars to help him get it.

He must have anticipated my skepticism, because before he’d even finished telling his story he was taking off his shirt to show me the bandage on his upper arm. Sure enough, there was a wound underneath it, seeping spectacularly through the gauze. Had this wound actually come from a spider bite? I guess I believed that. I’m certainly aware of the threat posed by spiders in this neighborhood. Plus, it seemed far too odd to be fictional. Hard-luck stories are usually much less interesting than that. Of course, maybe he got the wound in a knife fight and wanted 10 dollars to buy a bigger knife. I don’t know.

The part of the story that really seemed to have holes in it was the part where the hospital patched him up but failed to give him the medication he needed. Moreover, it is not my custom to give 10 dollars to strangers. I might give a panhandler a quarter or 50 cents if he catches me on a good day (note: my good days are rare), but 10 dollars? Yikes.

I also thought about this: If I give 10 dollars to this thin, grungy spider victim, he’ll think I’m an easy mark and start coming around regularly. It’s like feeding a stray cat.

So I told him no, I’m sorry, but I can’t spare 10 dollars. He asked if I could maybe spare five dollars. I told him that was not possible either.

“What about two?”

“I don’t think I even have any cash on me.” (By pure coincidence, this was actually true.)

“Can you spare some change, then, for bus fare?”

“I don’t have any change, I’m sorry.”

“Not even a dollar-fifty, for the bus?”

“Sorry.”

He seemed very put out by my failure to provide any help for the unmedicated spider-bitten man who had shown up on my doorstep, and he left. A few moments later, through the open window on the other side of the apartment, I heard him talking to someone on the sidewalk. He was saying this: “So then I asked for five dollars, and he said no, and then TWO, and he said no, and then a DOLLAR-FIFTY, and STILL NO!” His tone was that of a man who cannot believe the utter bull**** he has just been handed. I don’t know who he was talking to. Maybe he had a partner who was working the opposite side of the street. Maybe he was talking to the spider.

The personal visit from a panhandler was unprecedented, but in downtown Portland, you can’t walk half a block without someone hitting you up for money. In addition, most of the freeway exits have homeless people stationed at them with cardboard signs requesting donations. Everywhere you turn, someone wants money.

Beyond the panhandlers, you also have the do-gooders. These are people volunteering for charitable organizations that help starving children and the environment and whatnot. They are infinitely more annoying than panhandlers because most panhandlers are pretty lazy about it. They’ll sit there and ask for change as you pass, but they don’t really care if you just keep walking. The do-gooders, on the other hand, won’t take no for an answer, and they’ll chase you down if you ignore them.

I first encountered one of them within a few days of my moving to Portland in 2005. A smiling young lady stopped me on the street and asked if I had a minute. I thought maybe she was taking a survey or something, and I DID have a minute, so hey, why not? Turns out she was hoping I would set up a monthly donation to whatever her charity was, with the money going to starving children in other lands. She even had photos of these starving children, presumably to verify their existence. I told her I certainly sympathized with the starving children — why, I was feeling a bit hungry myself at the moment — but that given my then-precarious financial situation, it would be highly irresponsible of me to establish a system where money was automatically withdrawn from my bank account every month. I could barely take care of myself, I told her. How could I take care of a starving child?

It was only with great effort that I was able to extricate myself from her. She kept phrasing her solicitations in terms of what I “wanted” to do. Her reasoning was that if I truly WANTED to help the starving children, surely I could find a way to do so, no matter how poor I was. If I was telling her no, then it must be because I just didn’t WANT to help the starving children.

This tactic was not effective on me. I doubt it is effective on anyone. I’m sure I’m not alone in not liking it when strangers on the street try to tell me how I “truly” feel. What I truly wanted was for her to shut up and leave me alone.

And it’s not that I’m opposed to generosity! I’m a bleeding heart. I feel sorry for everyone. I’m a sucker for a sob story. I give to legitimate charities when I can. But I ain’t exactly Rockefeller. And even a millionaire would run out of money pretty fast if he signed up with every charity represented by these eager young people standing on the corners of downtown Portland.

Savvy Portlanders have learned how to avoid them. First and foremost, you don’t make eye contact with them. They thrive on eye contact. If you make eye contact, you’re dead. They’ll thrust out a hand to shake yours, they’ll say, “Hey, my name is Jake! How are you today?,” and they’ll act like your pal, hoping to guilt you into hearing their spiel and signing up to donate money every month.

They post themselves at intersections, so you have to be careful not to get stuck standing next to one while you’re waiting for the crosswalk light. If you do, you’re trapped. Your only recourse then is to pretend to be talking on your cell phone.

Usually the do-gooders are nicely groomed and fresh-faced, but since this is Portland, sometimes you see one with an “alternative” look, too. Because for sure I’m going to give my financial information to the guy with pierced everything whose hair is arranged into foot-long spikes. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest, most books’ covers are pretty accurate.

• • • • •

If you have extra money lying around, you might consider donating some to Toys for Tots or the Children’s Hunger Fund. Both organizations earn four stars from Charity Navigator, a watchdog site that ranks charities according to how efficiently they use their donations.

The note at the end kind of makes it sound like the whole column was nothing more than a ploy to make you donate money, but I promise that was not the case. It was more of an afterthought. For the SnideCast recording, I played up the "public service announcement" aspect and read this paragraph, backed by Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All":

"Hi, I'm Eric D. Snider. We've enjoyed laughing about donations and charities in this week's 'Snide Remarks,' but there really are a lot of people in need, especially children. So if you have extra money lying around this Christmas season, you might consider donating some to Toys for Tots, at ToysForTots.org, or Children's Hunger Fund, at ChildrensHungerFund.org. Both organizations earn four stars from Charity Navigator, a watchdog website that ranks charities according to how efficiently they use their donations. Toys for Tots and Children's Hunger Fund both put almost every penny you give right where it's needed, with only a tiny bit used to cover operating costs. Check them out at CharityNavigator.org, and let's all pitch in to make this holiday season a little brighter, especially for kids. I believe that children are our future."

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