There’s this guy.
Whenever I see him, it ticks me off.
And I see him every day. Well, every day Monday through Friday.
He’s a panhandler.
I see him on my drive to work. That’s right, on my way to work. You know, one of those places where you show up five days a week and work for eight hours each day and at the end of the week, to show their appreciation, the company gives you a paycheck. And you use that paycheck to pay the rent and buy groceries and maybe take in a movie, and then the next week you go back and work another five days for eight hours each day, and you do that for about 50 years or so.
Not my panhandler.
Every morning I see him at a very busy intersection about a mile from my office. It’s a huge intersection, with three lanes of traffic coming and going in four directions. There are four medians of raised concrete about three feet wide at that intersection, and my panhandler is always on the median next to me where I pull up to make my turn. He’s never on the median on the other side of the stoplight or the medians to the left or the right. It’s a long light at that intersection, one of the longest in the county. So I have a lot of time to look at the panhandler, a lot of time to get angry, and a lot of time to try and analyze why I get so angry.
I have spent a lifetime noticing things. It’s pretty much been my job to do so. As a newspaper reporter I hung out with cops and detectives, who notice everything, and as a journalist, it’s the things you notice that go into the stories that you write.
What I notice about my panhandler, who is a white guy in his late 20s, is that his clothes are rather clean. Maybe a little rumpled, but clean nonetheless. There are no grass or grease or dirt stains on his clothes, which means he is not sleeping on the ground or in a cardboard box in those clothes. Even his tennis shoes look new. He’s not wearing a backpack, he is not carrying a plastic garbage bag with his possessions, and he’s only wearing one shirt and one pair of pants, not layering his clothes because he has nowhere else to keep them. So he is not homeless. There is a roof over his head when he goes to sleep, a place to store his extra clothes. He needs a shave but his hair is clean and trimmed. His hands and fingernails are also clean which means he has not been rummaging through dumpsters. There are soap and shampoo in his world. He’s of average build and looks healthy. He is not missing many, if any, meals.
I have seen street people in major cities like New York where you can not tell if the mass of soiled clothing piled on the street contains a human being, and if a face does peer out at you, you can not tell the gender or race of the person because of the grime covering their face. Those are truly life’s unfortunate ones. My panhandler looks positively spiffy compared to them.
And then there’s his sign, which says, “Hungry, please help, God bless.” No misspellings. Perfectly spaced and aligned letters in heavy black magic marker. The edges of the cardboard uniformly cut with scissors, not hand-torn from a box. Any nicer looking and you would think he had the sign made at Office Depot.
Noticing all these things, I realize that my panhandler is not a street person or a homeless person. He’s not a war vet down on his luck. He’s not an out of work father trying to feed his kids. He’s a beggar, pure and simple. And in his mind, he is entitled to ask me and every other motorist who works hard for a living to give him money.
I have worked my whole life. I was cutting the neighbors’ lawns when I was 12 and pumping gas when I was 14. I put myself through college. My father was in the military so there was no family business to pass down. My wife lived in a trailer park when she was a child. The highlight of her week was Sunday when her parents bought and cooked one steak and each of the children got one bite of that steak.
One bite. You don’t forget things like that.
The part about my panhandler that aggravates me the most is the walk. He will stand at the very end of the median and wait until the cars stop for the light in the turn lane. He stands perfectly still, shoulders back, feet together, holding the sign with both hands at chest level. When a sufficient number of cars have stopped, he will start walking in slow measured steps down the median. His walk is slow enough to give every motorist enough time to feel guilty if they don’t roll down their window and hand him a dollar. He will not look at the motorists and instead stares straight down the median as if he is not part of the process. If someone does reach out with money, he steps off the median at a ninety-degree angle, takes the money, nods his head and then quickly steps back up on the median and continues his slow measured walk. All his actions seem perfunctory, as if he feels it is expected of everyone to give him money.
I’m not sure where this sense of entitlement that so many people have comes from, as in I deserve this, so give it to me. You can earn enough money to own a big house and a fancy car, but you are not automatically entitled to those things just because you were born. Just because Jay-Z has a big yacht in his latest music video or Donald Trump has a new coat of paint on his private jet does not mean everybody gets their own yacht or jet. You may want one. You might even earn one. But you aren’t entitled to one just because you think you are.
On the bigger playing field, the sense of entitlement issue crops up in hot topic areas like national health care and welfare and affirmative action and government bank bailouts and immigration. My panhandler boils all those debates down to the bare bones. His message is cut and dried — I do not want to work and I am hungry or I need drugs or I want to buy the newest Xbox game, and I need money, so you must give it to me. And I will keep standing on this intersection median until you do.
The guy is smart. He has the business acumen to pick one of the busiest intersections in town. He knows to get there in time to take advantage of the early morning rush hour traffic. He does his own marketing and publicity, and he’s his own bookkeeper. He pays no taxes. Did I mention that I live in beautiful sunny Florida, so he plies his trade in a state that most people can only dream of one day retiring to. It never snows here and on the days that it rains, well, he takes the day off.
Each day that I am in that traffic lane I see an average of five motorists give him a dollar. The light turns red every five minutes which means he can collect five dollars twelve times an hour. That’s $60 an hour. There are people at my office who only make $14 an hour. He works the median from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon Monday through Friday, so he can also hit the lunch crowd.
Add it up. That’s $60 an hour, $360 a day, and $1,800 a week. Again tax free. Let’s say he only does half of that. That’s still $900 a week. Not bad for a part-time job.
Because that’s what it is. His job.
I read an article once about a guy who, after making some very profitable horse bets at the local racetrack, quit his boring 9-to-5 office job to live the good life as a professional horse-bettor. He told his boss to go screw himself, threw away his briefcase, put his suit and ties up in the attic and bragged to his friends that he no longer had to work for a living. He was just going to bet the ponies from then on.
Six months later he reassessed his situation.
He was going to the racetrack six days a week, getting there early to study the racing tip sheets, and staying late after the races to talk to trainers and jockeys. Since the track was on the outskirts of town, he was taking a one-hour train ride to and from the track each day. Some days he won and some days he lost. On the days he lost, he was stressed and full of anxiety until the next day when he could go to the track and hopefully recoup his losses. He realized that in living the good life as a horse bettor, he was working longer hours, making less money and taking on more stress than when he had worked at the boring office job he had left.
That story reminds me of my panhandler. He is smart enough and healthy enough to get a regular job if he were to simply apply the same energy and creativity and hustle that he brings to the table as a panhandler.
So that’s what makes me angry.
Or maybe it’s not.
Because why would my panhandler want to get a regular job with rules and regulations and timeclocks and overbearing supervisors when he can make a good living sponging off suckers who don’t know any better? Should he be faulted for having the audacity to demand that people give him money for free?
P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
How ironic that most of them just happen to be sitting in the cars around me at that traffic light each morning.
Perhaps that’s what is really pissing me off.