Beg Your Pardon

Dear panhandlers:

I’m done. It’s over. Don’t ask.

Yeah, yeah, I know. No big loss for you. I don’t usually give you money, anyway.

I want you to know that it’s not that I don’t want to help. If I could know for certain you genuinely needed help, I’d buy you a burger, take you shopping, even make your house payment.

But I don’t know for certain, and frankly, I don’t believe your stories.

The carboard sign that you ‘dream of a cheeseburger, or that you’re ‘homeless with 3 children,’ just doesn’t resonate as sincere. Adding “GOD BLESS” to the bottom of your sign doesn’t make your plea more plausible, either.

I have my reasons for doubting you. I’ve seen you guys and gals take each other’s place and pass off the same cardboard sign. I’ve seen you bum a couple of bucks and walk straight into a package store.

Hey, I’m all for you enjoying a cold one, just don’t ask me to pay for it.

It’s how you’ve decided to make a living. Got it. Just doesn’t seem like you’ll ever get promoted to something better at that job.

I’ve had quite a run with some of you recently.

Back in September, passing through Memphis, I encountered a middle-aged, rather small black man as my group walked down the street. 

Yes, that he was black and I am white comes into play in this particular episode.

As we walked toward the street he was ‘working,’ we could see his game. He would direct cars looking for a parking place to an open spot. That of course is something they could find on their own, but if he could run ahead of them and point it out, might there be a ‘tip’ for his help?

That appeared to be his pitch.

As we walked past him, he joined us. He was energetic and friendly, asking how we were, how we were enjoying Memphis and where we were from.

The jovial banter continued for several minutes until we were clearly getting out of his territory.

“Can you give me money for a sandwich?” he asked

My standard answer: “Sorry, man, I don’t carry money.”

That’s usually the truth. I almost never have dollar bills on me. I’m a plastic man. Credit cards. Whether it was true or not on this day made no difference. I wasn’t giving him money. I had seen him a block away and knew that if he came up to us, there would be a motive other than serving as the city’s official welcoming committee.

He responded to being turned down by immediately veering away from our group and saying, “That’s because white is always right and black is always wrong.”

I’m used to some sort of comeback when a beggar is turned down, but that one caught me off-guard. All of that friendly chit-chat suddenly became a racial divide when I didn’t give him money.

As we continued to walk away, he continued to yell, eventually hollering that if I came back to where he was, he would put me in the hospital. He said that twice.

I wondered what he was expecting by threatening me.


Did he think I’d stop, turn around, apologize for every historical wrong that had happened to the black man and give him a twenty? Did he think I’d suddenly sympathize with him and say, “Hey, dude, I’m not like you think. Please take my money.”

Next stop, West Coast.

Passing an older, worn out-looking gentleman on a pier in wharf district of San Francisco, I could feel it coming.

“Can you people help me get some food?”

I probably would have been better off just handing him a couple of bucks, but I gave him my standard line and kept walking. That set him off.

“Go on back to your rich-people hotel, ya faggot!”

I’m not going to lie to you. Having a homophobic slur hurled at me in the middle of San Francisco has some entertainment value. Even my gay friends have found that story amusing.

Finally, Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a city we love visiting. In fact, we have two more visits on the agenda this year.

My wife and I had taken my mother to a Christmas show at the historic Ryman Auditorium. Vince Gill and Amy Grant. It was fabulous!

As we sat in the hotel lobby the next morning eating breakfast, a young woman approached, wanting to know if she could ask us a question.

My radar lit up.

More often than not, when someone is trying to put the touch on you, it starts with, ‘can I ask you something?’ or ‘hey, mind if I ask you a question?’

She started her pitch. She and her kids didn’t have enough money to pay their hotel bill. She said she needed $26. That’s pretty specific. People doing what she was doing will usually take anything you offer.

 My wife, the softest touch on earth responded, “I’d love to help.” She grabbed her pocketbook and offered to accompany the young woman to the front desk to pay her bill.

Wait for it…wait for it…

“Well, we’re not staying at this hotel,” the woman said. “We’re at a hotel down the street.”

That’s when I jumped in and, as politely as I can speak, told her, “I’m sorry, we’re not going to be able to help you.”

She stared at us for a few seconds as though we might change our minds, then moved on.

My wife excused herself from the table and went back to the room. She was aggravated, mostly with me.

It’s not that she didn’t know the woman was begging, nor that she didn’t understand why I sent the woman away. She just wanted to help. She wants to help them all. I had interfered.

Mom got weepy.

Now, Mom lives in Atlanta. She’s very familiar with the hustlers. As we talked about the incident, she even allowed how most panhandlers involve their children in their stories. She was 100% on board that the woman was out bumming, but the story made Mom really sad.

She was also sad that my wife had been so willing to help only to find out it was an obvious ruse.

So, to everyone out on the street with your hands out, I hope you have a nice day. Mostly, I hope you find the motivation to make your life better.

But you made my mama cry. We’re done.

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