Beaton column: ‘My panhandling was good but my moneymaking was lousy’
My recent column, “Panhandling in Paradise,” described my amusing experience panhandling in Aspen. Spoiler alert: Someone gave me a $100 bill.
But panhandling is not always paradise.
I once panhandled for a day in Colorado Springs. Around the terrific Broadmoor Hotel, that town is beautiful and moneyed. But the rest of the town is a modest home to slices of Americana: three military bases, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, religious groups like Focus on the Family and a formerly great private college.
Wealthy tourists who brought money to the town when I grew up there are now bringing their money to resorts like Aspen and Vail. Much of the old tourist strip is now run down or even boarded up while renovation plans simmer. Sometimes the potholes are so big that they have to close a street.
The town is “home” to lots of homeless people these days, and panhandlers are common. I knew I wouldn’t be the spectacle that I was in Aspen, where panhandling is not only unusual but illegal.
In the back of my BMW, I found my cardboard sign reading “SURVIVED CANCER BUT LOST MY JOB” (which happens to be true, though a bit misleading). It had gotten a little clean in my trunk, so I dirtied it. Then I put on old jeans and a tattered shirt, and set out.
I sincerely hoped that none of my high school classmates would recognize me, but, if they did, I hoped they would give me money. My mother — who still lives in town — probably shared the first hope if not the second.
This occupation is embarrassing at first. After an hour, however, you get over it and wonder why you’re not making more money. Unless you’ve been a beggar, you can’t imagine how people look while pretending not to see. I do it, and so do you.
Fishermen often quip that the fishing is good but the catching is lousy. Well, my panhandling was good but my moneymaking was lousy. I was getting skunked.
I wandered miles, all the way to the fancy private college filled with liberal kids using their rich parents’ money for the purpose of killing time before growing up. I said to a group of passing students, “Can you help me?”
They pretended not to hear. I moved to within a few feet of them. Holding my sign out, I repeated a little louder, “Excuse me, but I wonder if you might be able to help me.”
A young woman turned and looked at me like I hadn’t survived cancer, but was dying of leprosy. I took that as a “no.”
Back in the bad part of town, I finally received a dollar from a young working-class stiff. He apologized that he didn’t have more to give me.
Rumor suggests that panhandling is a lucrative scam. Reports abound of panhandlers making real money. Stories are told of panhandlers who aren’t actually down-and-out but are up-and-in.
Maybe, but that wasn’t consistent with my experience that day. That day, I concluded that no one would do this unless they were desperate.
I finally gave up and started back to my car. I crossed a broad boulevard with a median occupied by a panhandler, a real one. He wore a sign saying “LOST MY FINGERS.” Indeed, he had. Whatever scams are proliferating in the panhandling business, it was plain that this man had no thumb or fingers on either hand.
I dug that dollar out of my pocket and handed it to him, as best as you can hand something to a man with only paws. I pressed the dollar into the crease of his palm as he said, “Thank you, sir, and merry Christmas.”
It was a windy day. I worried that the dollar would blow away before he could secure it. I worried that I should help him put the dollar into wherever he kept his money. I worried that I should give him more.
But I couldn’t deal with this soul. I looked away, and I walked away. I kept my eyes on the pavement until safely divided from him by traffic.
Then I looked skyward and asked out loud, “Why? Why did you leave us here?”
Postscript: I later interviewed a person in charge of homelessness services in Colorado Springs. He suggested not giving to panhandlers, as the money often winds up hurting more than helping them. Instead give the money to one of the groups that help the homeless.
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