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?