So do I LOOK like a sap, or what?

That was a rhetorical question. (Imagine Billy Bob Thornton saying that, as Mr. Woodcock.)

Jeffrey Sewell from over at S.C. Hotline sent me this suggestion:


Would you consider a blog piece encouraging folks not to give
to panhandlers but directly to shelters and churches during the holiday season?

Would that work? Even for a notorious soft touch like me? Long ago, back when I was in college, I sort of developed this attitude that if someone had degraded himself in his own eyes to the point that he’ll beg me as a stranger for money, why not just give him some? I mean, he might as well have the money, because what else has he got?

Admittedly, that’s a poorly defined philosophy, and an odd mixture of sympathy and judgmentalism on my part, but in all the years since, I haven’t really improved on it. I’ve experimented with giving the money, refusing to give the money, and ignoring the supplicant. All three make me feel bad — the first because I’m generally all but certain that I’m being conned (although there’s always the chance that the NEXT guy who needs just a little more money so he can catch the bus to Greenville to see his sick child will be telling the truth), and the others because, even if it’s a con, they make me feel like a rat.

So generally speaking, I’m a soft touch for beggars. But what gets me is that they can spot me at a distance. Either there’s a panhandler database on the Internet with my name and photo on it (so that’s what they’re all doing when they hang out at the library), or they can just TELL. The way I can just tell they’re going to hit me up from the first clearing of the throat, or the first move in my direction.

Sometimes, I can tell before that. Over the weekend, I was parallel-parked in 5 Points. I was in my vehicle already and just about to start the truck and pull away when I saw, about 10 feet off my starboard bow, a panhandler approaching a young woman. I said to myself, "Go, go, GO!" and cranked the ignition, but even though there was every reason to think I’d escape, somehow I knew that the young woman wasn’t going to buy me enough time; he was going to bypass everyone else and somehow get to me before I could get away. And he did. I started the truck, looked over my shoulder for a break in the traffic, and there he was, tapping on my closed window and holding up — this is the best part — an actual, official, U.S. military ID card.

I rolled the window down (what am I gonna do; run over a veteran to get away?), and he was already into his spiel, of which I only caught bits … "Green Beret… nineteen sixty-four…" Yes, it was the classic Billy Ray Valentine approach:

Uh… I was with the Green Berets – special unit battalion commando airborne tactic specialist tactics unit battalion. Yeah!

Apparently, this was Agent Orange himself. I hastily dug a couple of bucks out of my wallet and handed them over, which provoked a gap-toothed grin. He asked, "Bet you didn’t mumble-mumble-mumble THIS year!" So I said "What?" and he said "Bet you didn’t mumble-mumble-mumble THIS year!" and I said either "Yeah," or "No, I didn’t" noncommitally (how could I have committed? I didn’t know what he was saying). And he grinned and nodded, and I drove off.

Where were we? Oh, yeah, Jeffrey’s suggestion. Good idea. But would that work?

32 thoughts on “So do I LOOK like a sap, or what?

  1. James D McCallister

    I’m a soft touch too, but please, Brad, let’s not reinforce what is already a 5 Pts problem. Direct them to the nearest shelter ala Oliver Gospel Mission.

  2. Karen McLeod

    I also have problems. Our current relief alternatives for the homeless are overwhelmed. A goodly number of the people depend on a soft touch, and some aren’t even homeless. At the same time, so many are desperate, and yes, they try “self-medication” (read alcohol/drugs) for their problems. But that doesn’t make their problems (all too often mental illness) any less real. As I read the Bible, we are called to give, but we’re also called to be wise. Right now, if they ask for money for food, I offer to go get them food. I don’t usually give out money, but I will get specific things (coats/food–such like that) I hope we can do something about this situation.

  3. Norm Ivey

    Being a soft touch is probably good for the soul. I struggle with this, too, but console myself with the thought that charity and sympathy are never wrong, even if they may be wasted.

  4. Randy E

    Brad, when you are indulging in another breakfast in the Capitol Club (if that’s the name), does it occur to you that people like the big homeless guy takes communion at St. Peter’s are a block away hoping to get a couple bucks from someone?
    Obviously, we all indulge so I use you as an example. I told my wife that I don’t like eating anywhere a meal costs the same amount that Oliver Gospel Mission could use to feed a dozen homeless people. (My Catholic guilt even gets to me at a buffet.)
    Northwest of downtown Hartford is a run down section of town that does not exist in Columbia. Litter and grafitti are ubiquitous and the schools are urban versions of the Corridor of Shame. 2 miles away is Prospect Street with multimillion dollar homes that could fit several Oliver Gospel Missions.
    This is a big reason why I supported Obama. He is into social justice while McCain didn’t even bother to mention poverty on his website.

  5. Elle Ulmer

    Instead of giving money directly to the homeless, I require them earn it by doing meaningless work that any 12-year-old could do, such as running an online news aggregator.

  6. p.m.

    The poor will always be with you, with the left at their coattails, taking a percentage and urging that giving be made mandatory.

  7. Doug Ross

    If you really want to get a better understanding of the homeless situation in Columbia, come on down to the parking lot behind First Baptist Church tomorrow (11/22) morning around 10:00. We feed about 150-200 people on the 4th Saturday of every month.
    Every one of them has a story. Most revolve around drugs, alcohol, child abuse, or some tragic situation that altered their lives. Many are veterans. Most are black men. Some of them are too far gone to do anything but live off the kindness of others while many just need that one break to turn things around. I didn’t realize how many of them make money by selling plasma (sometimes twice a week).

  8. bud

    Yet again people are missing a big point. Doesn’t it seem obvious that one reason we have so many homeless veterans is because we have so many veterans who are mentally screwed up. Think about this a second. If we send millions of men to fight in combat a certain percentage will come home with their brains effectively out of kilter. This is a very real problem that we need to deal with.
    If we must fight in wars the very least we can do is help these poor souls transition back to a productive civilian life. All this rah-rah the military crap really just glosses over the problem. The project to transport a few elderly veterans to Washington just to look at a few monuments is a misguided gesture to make us feel good. Let’s skip all these feel good gestures and instead focus our attention on making veterans whole again.
    The Bush Administration has been woefully inadequate on this issue. It’s time we change our way of thinking and do some things that will actually make a difference to our veterans. Brad talks a good game but in the end even he is uncomfortable with the sight of a veteran that doesn’t fit his preconceived ideas about the glory of war and the military. Talk is cheap. Let’s actually do something.

  9. bud

    How about this for timing. From the USA Today:
    By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
    FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — The number of soldiers seeking help for substance abuse has climbed 25% in the past five years, but the Army’s counseling program has remained significantly understaffed and struggling to meet the demand, according to Army records.
    About 13,500 soldiers sought drug counseling this year and 7,200 soldiers were diagnosed with an abuse or dependency issue and enrolled in counseling, Army data show. That compares with 11,170 soldiers reporting to drug counseling in 2003, when 5,727 enrolled.
    UNDERSTAFFED: Missouri Army drug abuse counseling program cited
    Army records show 2.38% of all soldiers had positive results on routine drug urinalysis screening, a 10-year record. In 2004, when combat troops returned from Iraq in large numbers, 1.72% had positive results.

  10. Brad Warthen

    Good Lord. Randy and bud, don’t get a nosebleed up there on the high horses. And to think, some people believe editorial writers are sanctimonious.
    bud, I know what war does to people — not from personal experience, but from the fact that I’m very interested in it, and read about it a LOT. I’m aware, for instance, that in the last few hundred years since the arrival of gunpowder, a shocking number of wounds result from being hit by the teeth and shards of bone from the guy next to you. Excuse me for being graphic, but when I think about the cost of war, I think about details like that. I’m deeply, deeply aware of the psychological effects of war, and because I’m interested in it, am probably aware of a lot more than you are. For instance, do you know about Audie Murphy — you know, the guy who parlayed being the most decorated soldier in WWII into a successful Hollywood career? There was a guy who was the very public symbol of the glory of war, and a POPULAR war. He suffered from psychological trauma his whole life. It broke up his marriage.
    As Stephen Ambrose wrote — and I believe he was quoting someone else — there are no unwounded veterans of foxholes. The grind of being an infantry soldier is so horrifically stressful that nothing else in life compares to it. I am acutely aware of it; the very prospect of it overwhelms my mind. I’ve thought about it enough to come to a conclusion, which is this: I wouldn’t mind the moments of intense combat — picture storming Omaha Beach — NEARLY as much as I would the daily grind of living in a hole in the ground in bad weather. In fact, I don’t think I’d make it through without cracking. My father-in-law was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, and there was nothing glorious about his war. He arrived with the green 106th on the front lines, and as soon as he got there the Germans attacked, a close friend was killed next to him, he was captured, and spent the rest of the war in a Stalag where the Germans didn’t have enough food for themselves, much less prisoners. Do you realize that the men who fought that battle and DIDN’T get captured spent weeks living in open foxholes in the coldest winter in Western Europe in a century? They’d wake up every morning and have to crack up the ice in their clothes to move. I try to imagine dealing with that for even an hour with my worn-out eyes trying to watch the dark woods, not knowing if it will EVER end, and I don’t see how I would keep my mind from collapsing in on itself.
    I’m aware that ALL wars have a terrible impact on veterans. Vietnam veterans didn’t invent that; PTSD just became a favorite topic of the antiwar left. But you know what? I think it would have been more awful, and more lonely, to have suffered from post-traumatic stress (“shell-shock” back then) after a popular war such as WWII. The public wants you to be Audie Murphy, and your agony has to be held inside.
    But I’m aware also that with modern medicine, more people survive horrific wounds than in the past. I know we have more wounded with brain injuries than we did in the past, on top of the psychological stresses. I know something about brain injuries. My mother-in-law lingered in a coma for a year with a brain injury. My youngest daughter’s boyfriend, her best friend where she lived alone in Pennsylvania, died from a brain injury caused by a car wreck. There are few things more horrible, and we have a LOT of veterans with those kinds of injuries.
    So don’t lecture me about war not being about tin soldiers in pretty uniforms. I’m well aware.
    And Randy, you know why I eat at the Cap City Club? Two reasons:
    — It’s the cheapest place I can get breakfast. Once you’re a member, it costs half as much as any other place I know of.
    — I run into a lot of important sources there and learn a lot of things incidentally that bear upon things I need to write about, while doing something that I needed to do anyway (eat breakfast). THAT’S why my company pays the club dues. For instance, I’ve had a lot of conversations there with the people who are leading the efforts to deal with homelessness in this community (and fighting a tough battle against city council’s resistance). Maybe you want to dismiss such people as stuffed shirts, but they’ve given a lot of themselves to working to help the homeless, and Cap City is where they sometimes meet. I’ve overheard, and participated in, several such discussions over breakfast.
    This morning, Inez Tenenbaum was there helping her husband Samuel, who’s now confined to a wheelchair after breaking his leg, and she’d brought him so he could have breakfast with some of his friends. I didn’t know they would be there, so it was great to run into them. (My most interesting and useful encounters at the club are incidental; I run into people and learn interesting things just because I’M THERE.) She didn’t want to talk about the fact that she’s under consideration for Obama’s Cabinet, but in light of that fact, it was nice to catch up and see what’s going on with her in the normal course of her life. Little things like that add perspective when it comes time to write about such people when they DO make news. And I can’t do that if I pick up my breakfast at a drive-through window at McDonald’s (besides, with my extreme food allergies, there’s nothing there I could eat). I’m sorry if this offends you, but that’s your problem, not mine.

  11. bud

    I’m speechless. Brad has articulated one of the 3 major costs of war far better than I ever could. The other 2 are (2) the various trauma issues associated with the civilian population and (3)the exhorbitant fincancial burden it places on a nation. Finally a pro-occupation ideologue addresses the cost issue, something I’ve stressed for years now as the overriding issue in the Iraq war. The benefit side of the equation is a riddle, shrouded in a mystery encased in an enigma (Churchill said something like that in reference to the USSR). In other words there really isn’t any benefit to our invasion and continued occupation in Iraq.
    So we have a new generation of veterans begging for a couple of bucks to buy a sandwich, or more likely, a bottle of MD 20/20. The only price the war monger class has to endure is encapsulated by an awkward moment when one of our “war heros” thrusts his beleagured face into the life of one editorial page editor to beg for a few bucks. Yet the culprits in this tragedy can drive home to the safety and comfort of their suburban home to bitch a bit about the upcoming deadline or the mound of fire ants that has suddenly appeared on their lawn. Perhaps if the war hero and the editorial page editor could trade places for just one day the FULL impact of their crass war mongering attitude could be appreciated. Instead we are left to stand in puzzlement over how an intelligent person with a great gift for persuasion can reach such a horribly wrong conclusion about the threats of a far away hapless despot. Even when the cost of war is thrust, ever so briefly, into the life of our editorial board writer it seems to make little difference. A shrug a grumble, a brief moment of reflection and the “cost” is over. Perhaps if Brad were to spend more time at the homeless shelter and less in the Summit Club he would meet even more “war heros” whose lives were shattered by an arrogant president and complacent congress.
    There will be other opportunities to do the right thing. We will certainly be in a postion to end a war rather than start one at some future time. Hopefully we will choose better next time.
    The cost of this war stares us in the face as we search for a way out. Why did we let this tragedy come to pass? What were we thinking when we allowed President Moran to thrust us into this disaster? Whatever it was we now have to deal with it. Even if for only a few moments in Five-Points parking lot.

  12. Randy E

    Brad, my point about the Capitol Club was not an indictment against you but against a society in which such extremes can occur. When you are dining up there, does it ever bother you that people within a block of each other can have such completely opposite existences?
    There are kids spending each day at Children’s Garden (day care for homeless kids). In the same city is a couple I know who lives in an 8,000 square foot house – just the two of them. This house is big enough to house the families using Children’s Garden.
    Yes, I’m being idealistic as I am when I engage my Christian faith to follow Jesus’ example. I will never fully follow his example, but I keep trying. Again, this is a big reason why I voted for Obama. He was the only general election candidate who even bothered to mention poverty as a national issue.
    You mention the good work of the Capitol Club members to fight on behalf of the homeless. Good for them. Now they can enjoy that $80 meal in peace.

  13. Doug Ross

    Although this is not a representative sample by any means, when I was doing the last Feed The Hungry meal at FBC before the election, I was talking with a guy in line wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap. I asked him what he thought of the election and he said he would never vote for McCain because he felt McCain had used his POW status as a political tool. The guy said “There’s two other ex-Vietnam POW’s right here in line right now”.
    There but for the grace of God… (and an ability to trade up on the trophy wife).

  14. Lee Muller

    The only societies where there is not an extreme range of wealth is a society where everyone is poor.
    The poor in America live better than most people in the world. If the government did not stand in the way and consume so much wealth, there would be almost no poor people, and those would be well-cared for by the excess wealth.
    There will always be a few physically handicapped people, those of low intellect, and the psychotic who cannot support themselves.
    A lot of the rest are just lazy, immoral, thieves. I pity them, not for their condition, but because they bought into the socialist lie that they can never do any better.

  15. martin

    I hope everybody on this blog who has ever had to have a parent admitted to a nursing home chose NOT to take the socialist path. I hope they chose not to apply for Medicaid. I hope they paid the thousands a month it takes to pay the fees out of their own pockets rather than rely on the government.

  16. reader

    Back to Jeffrey Sewell’s original note — one local shelter I would think twice about giving to this holiday season, due to the ‘treatment’ I received as a “volunteer,” is The Salvation Army. Also, they have some nice new offices and a staff of very attractive, very well-dressed female staffers.
    Word to the wise. [Delete it quick, Brad.]

  17. Brad Warthen

    bud, if you want to know more about the psychological cost of war, read On Killing: The Psychological Cost Of Killing In War And Society by Lt. Col. David Grossman. I learned a lot from it.
    A lot of people think the greatest sacrifice that soldiers offer to their countries is laying their own lives on the line, the risk of being killed or maimed.
    I’ve never believed that. I’ve always believed the greatest sacrifice is not to DIE for your country, but to KILL for your country. That would be the truly hard thing.
    I had always sort of intuitively believed that, but that book, On Killing, laid it out in clear terms. Killing is the hardest thing a soldier does. For instance, before I read that, I knew that an awful lot of soldiers in history go through combat without firing their weapons. What I had NOT known was that of those who DO fire their weapons, most miss — often deliberately. Apparently, shooting to kill is a very difficult thing for even a trained soldier to bring himself to do. And once he does manage to do it, he pays a heavy price.
    That’s not true of everyone, of course. Some people are able to reconcile shooting the enemy as a necessary thing, and can live with it all right. But they are the minority among men.

  18. Brad Warthen

    Here’s something bud won’t like, which is also covered in that book: The U.S. military has gotten better over the years at training soldier to shoot to kill. Training involves more sophisticated desensitization and emphasis on firing at a target quickly and accurately without taking time to think about it.
    That, as much as our greater expenditures on materiel, accounts for the fact that American forces are so deadly effective in combat. Our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t just resort to IEDs and suicide bombings because they prefer those weapons; there’s also the fact that they don’t stand a chance in a straight-up fight. U.S. commanders keep hoping the enemy will come out and fight — as has happened in a few instances — because when they do, that’s the end of them.
    Folks with pacifist leanings may find that appalling, but I like to know that if we’re sending a young man into combat, he’s prepared to win. I’d much rather that he killed the terrorist than vice versa.
    But I don’t kid myself about the fact that a soldier who shoots and kills before he has time to think, because that’s his job (and because the other guy would kill him or his buddy if he could), is likely to pay for it later. Some won’t, but many will.
    bud has trouble understanding how I can advocate military action in the light of that knowledge. I can do so because I don’t believe our staying out of it would lead to an absence of violence. Frequently, U.S. troops can reduce violence by their presence, as happened in the recent surge. Other times, we don’t have much choice — as in Afghanistan.
    I know what you’re thinking — that doesn’t justify the original invasion of Iraq. And you’re right; BY ITSELF that explanation doesn’t serve, since our long-standing conflict with Saddam was relatively dormant at the time (he was just OCCASIONALLY shooting at our pilots flying over the no-fly zone, enforcing international agreements). But there hasn’t been a time SINCE the invasion when we could have pulled out without increasing the bloodshed — until now. We’re close to that day now, and the Iraqis have realized it and are increasingly ready for us to leave. But this is the first time we could consider that responsibly.

  19. Randy E

    Wait a minute, Brad. We were to pull out when the goals were met – diplomatic reconciliation and passage of key legislature to move Iraq forward. THAT was the stated mission of the surge. Have we achieved that goal? We’re not even back to pre-surge troop levels and it’s time to call it a night?
    How interesting that just a couple months ago Obama was so wrong in wanting to pull troops out. Suddenly the Iraqis want us out, W negotiates our withdrawl, and now Brad thinks it’s time to go. Have we really met those benchmarks or is our military planning as disoriented as a McCain campaign?
    Let the ivory tower analysis begin. First we’ll ignore poverty until it comes knocking at our window, then we’ll ignore the reality of the war/police action.
    The pulling the trigger without thinking first sounds familiar…VP Cheney duck hunting…

  20. Bill C.

    Brad, don’t you have cereal and milk at home?
    How did Sam “Visa Card” Tenenbaum break his leg? Did he trip over his ego? I find it interesting that you fawn all over these two who have done absolutely nothing for this state yet bash our governor, who does everything he can to try to cut unnecessary spending by the legislature, every chance you get. I hope Lizzy does get an Obama appointment, then hopefully they’ll leave Columbia for good.

  21. Cookie

    Brad, what’s so difficult about making yourself an egg sandwich? There’s nothing at all wrong with a good egg sandwich every morning. Whole wheat bread. REAL butter. EGGS.

  22. Randy E

    I need to bone up on my Catholic dogma. Apparently Iraq is a just war and eating $80 meals while others starve is just deserts.
    Cookie, I’m getting hungry…does the Capitol Club deliver?

  23. Jeffrey Sewell

    Lot of good comments, please don’t miss the point and forgive me if a conservative is differing to establishments but again if you will look past the fact that you are fortunate to have a job and happen to come upon a street corner or sidewalk of a panhandler… Remember the churches, shelters and charities can do a better job of distributing the small amount of change us working folks have to give. The fact is there are hustlers out there dressed as bums making hundreds of dollars a day on your self-imposed guilt and sympathy for the less fortuned.
    Jeffrey Sewell

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