Thursday, August 31, 2006

How Not to Beg on the Streets

AFTER WORKING IN NEW York City for more than 7 years, and having spent another 4 living in Boston, I have a fairly thick skin when it comes to panhandlers. I would rather aid an organization that works to secure them the means to escape their dire straits long term via mental-health care, employment, or lodgings. Failing that, I would choose food as a means of direct assistance to these folks.

This attitude was born of seeing people like the woman sitting outside the 14th St. PATH station this morning. Next to this busy portal sat a well-fed woman with an extended written request for money on a clean-looking piece of cardboard. What made her stand out from the average beggar was her cup of coffee and her cigarette.

Now, this wasn't some nub of a filter she might have scrounged a la Roger Miller's "King of the Road" with his cigar butt. This was a healthy length of nail. Cigs in New York cost upwards from $5.50 a pack, and coffee starts at six bits.

This isn't the first instance of misplaced charitable investment. Up in Midtown, I used to pass a man who had a table, a water bottle with change and a few bills in it, and some literature on the homeless outreach program he supported. He had a solid rap, too, one that he projected well over a block. For a while I could recite it from memory.

I occasionally dropped some pocket change in his bottle, seeing as he had a powerful sales pitch and would sit out there in any weather. What stopped me, though, was seeing him smoking one day. This guy could be dropping that money, anywhere from $5 to $6.50 a pack, into his own bottle, which depending on his dosage could be anywhere from $120 to $360 a month. Granted, even charity god Paul Newman might have a glass of wine with you now and again. But as vices go, this one is entirely needless and could have helped a lot of the people he was exhorting the office workers streaming around him not to forget. My contributions to his bottle stopped that day.

Fast forward to this "beggar" outside the PATH stop. I wanted to ask her precisely how many commuters she had to hit up to get enough dough for a loosie cig, but I hadn't the time or the inclination. I can only hope others who passed her by had the same thought as I did. What's more regrettable is that she might bias people of charitable leanings to snuff that impulse when presented with a legitimate opportunity to do good.

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