In New York City in the Eighties you couldn’t walk from your apartment to the subway station without getting accosted by countless panhandlers. Friends who lived there at that time felt sorry for all of them, but were suspicious that they were looking for drug money and not food, in spite of what they were saying. To ease their conscience, they made stacks of Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper before they left home, and when they were approached by beggars asking for food, they would offer a PB&J sandwich. Many accepted this food with thanks, but a large number scorned the sandwiches and cussed them out.
Walt Whitman advises, “Give alms to all who ask,” and I would love to do so. I am a soft touch and believe the best of people, but I have my doubts about many of these beggars you see at stop lights around Asheville. There is one guy who camps out at the Montford exit off 240. He sits on this tuffet of grass to the left, and if you are stopped there for the light, he gives you a fake smile and pitiful look. Ron noticed that he is surrounded by garbage he has accumulated in his time there. He seems to have plenty of spare time, and I would think he could clean it up. But no.
The scary dark haired guy who seems to have been keeping a low profile in Black Mountain these days since he spent some jail time, used to scare people into giving him handouts. He would walk up to people and demand a cigarette, and he would scare servers at Foothills into paying for his lunch. One day he got two servers to buy him meals on the same day. He would then bring his food to the bench outside my shop, eat some, and throw the rest on the sidewalk and into my plants for me to clean up.
I imagine some of the beggars you see around Asheville have mental illness or some other impediment to working, but I am skeptical. I have heard rumors that it is possible to make a nice living by panhandling. But so many local businesses are desperate for hourly help. The other day I saw the manager of Ingles gathering shopping carts in the parking lot because they are so shorthanded.There was a time not long ago when I worked for ABCCM helping people with barriers to employment find jobs. At that time people with doctorates were lucky to get jobs at McDonald, so someone with a history of felonies was really out of luck. Now employers are less picky, but still jobs go vacant. Surely some of these beggars could handle a job.
As I was heading into Ingles at the end of a day recently, I saw a young man and his dog in front of the entrance holding a sign reading, “Traveling…Hungry.” He was neatly dressed and both he and the dog looked well-cared for. Someone had already given him a bag of dog food. He he made me wonder what his story was. Was he a scammer? I thought about him as I made a quick circuit of the store, and I decided to try the NYC thing of offering him food to see how he reacted. I bought a wrapped sandwich and stopped in front of him as I exited the store. I handed him the sandwich and asked if he wanted it. He looked at me with kindness and smiled wide. “This looks amazing! Thanks so much!!”
I felt rewarded for trusting that he was for real and for offering a smidge of help. I hope that he is on his way with a slightly fuller stomach. I guess we each taught each other to trust more.