Wednesday, May 03, 2006
I think I've mentioned before that I live on the edge of a pretty fancy historic neighborhood. This neighborhood is right smack in downtown, so it's a funny mix of small-town neighborliness, gated-community snottiness, and downtown funkiness. Most of the time, I love it. But as y'all know, sometimes I really hate it.
Being close to the bus station and the homeless shelters, the verdant lawns and conspicuously enormous houses of this neighborhood attract a good number of panhandlers and petty thieves. Back when I used to read the neighborhood listserv (a.k.a. Rumor Mill), the big flap was often over a rash of porch thievery ("Re: Another topiary stolen!"). I've been panhandled here while walking home from work at least as many times as I've been asked for directions. Sometimes by con artists, and I'm sure as many times by people who are truly in need. I think the down-on-their-luck must take a look around and think, "Wow! All those rich people - I'm sure to make some money there!"
Sadly, it's not true. Rich people are tightwads.
Yesterday while walking home from work I waved hello to a gaggle of well-heeled neighbors and their overpriveledged children who were standing on their freshly re-sodded lawn and chatting with another neighbor who was idling in the middle of the street in her Cadillac SUV with the window rolled down. Not an unfamiliar scene. (Yes, I almost gagged a little).
A bit further along, a young guy came up to me and asked if he could talk to me for a minute. He was dressed a little nicer than the average panhandler, but I knew what was coming. He told me his hard-luck story. He seemed pretty sincere. In fact, he didn't seem like a regular pandhandler at all - he wasn't very smooth. He appeared to be almost in pain - I think he was, actually. It seemed to pain him to have to beg on the street like that.
We chatted for a little while and I gave him what I had in my wallet - a ten dollar bill. That was my pocket money for the week - but I have an ATM card, and no hard-luck story.
He seemed to be suppressing anger as he told me about how hard it was to come by some work and some honest money. He'd been asking around the neighborhood for any kind of work he could get - mowing the lawn, cleaning out the rain gutter - but nobody would help him out.
I looked around at the giant lawns and overly-long stretches of gutter around us, and thought about all the hired help that my neighbors use every day. The problem, I wanted to tell him, is that rich people are tightwads. Nobody here is going to be sympathetic to a hard-luck story, because they've never been in a tight spot themselves - unless you hit the shabbier houses (like ours). Hell, the worst place I've ever been, I could still call my parents up and grovel for their money.
If you really want to find generous people, I wanted to tell him, go back to the shelter where you're staying. Or walk down the street, across what my neighbors refer to as "the frontier," to the under-managed rentals and tumbledown apartment buildings, and see if anybody has a few dollars for you. Those folks know what it is to need. They'll give you what they can.
Instead, I gave him the ten-spot from my wallet and he hugged me, awkwardly, and told me I had a heart of gold. I wished him good luck and went home, feeling sort of useless.