Tuesday, December 29, 2009
A few days ago I was getting into my car in a large parking lot. I was approached by a well dressed woman. “Excuse, me, sir,” she asked with apparent reluctance. “I’ve had a bit of trouble and I…”
My hand went up to stop the rest of her pitch. She was begging. I could see that every word was costing her great effort.
“Sure, no problem," I responded. "I have a couple bucks worth of change. I’ve been through hard times myself.”
She relaxed, her shoulders came down from around her ears. She wasn’t a funky street person holding a sign at a busy intersection. She looked like a soccer mom with two kids. This was my first encounter with a more upscale type of beggar.
Some traffic- light panhandlers have a dog. Some sit in wheelchairs. They’ve always been a fixture at certain busy intersections. They hold cardboard signs written in Magic Marker that say variations of the same message: “Anything will help.” “Please. Will work for food.” I hold no animus towards them. To feel contempt would be....contemptible. They stand for hours in a noisy place clogged with car fumes and endure a thousand humiliations.
I could tell that the well dressed woman in her early thirties was not used to panhandling. The look on her face was shattering. She was humiliated but she tried to appear as if this was just a momentary blip, like she had left her wallet at home and had run out of gas. She was going to beg just this once, it wasn’t a thing she would do tomorrow and the day after that. I saw her move on to the next person and the next. They recoiled, they refused. She kept on, walking softly up to people. “Excuse me, sir, I’m in a bit of trouble…Excuse me ma’am”.
I could see the immense effort it cost ; her body was wrapped around itself as if she was very cold. I know the feeling. I’ve begged and panhandled. I sank to the bottom tier of society. The work of begging is very difficult.
Yesterday I was in another parking lot, just coming from Raley’s with two plastic bags of food. It was five-ish, getting dark. A woman approached me wearing a white down jacket and slacks. Her hair was well kept, her makeup was in place.
“Excuse me, sir” she began and again I held up my hand. “No problem,”
I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”
As I dug through my bag, I asked her a question.
“How many hours a day do you do this?”
“All day. I’ve been here since eight this morning. My feet are killing me. I’m done in an hour. Eight to six,” she laughed bitterly, “it’s a full time job.”
“So..what are people like?” I wondered. “Do they help you?”
She leaned back against a car, taking the weight off her feet. The bright blue light of the mercury vapor lamps made it easy to see her face. She didn’t look like an addict. I'm not an expert on what an addict looks like, but, having been one, I can feel that particular hunger, I know the signs. She looked like a thirty five year old woman trapped in circumstances beyond her control. Maybe she’s divorced. Her ex-husband’s vanished, not paying child support. She’s three months behind on the rent. She was laid off from her job after twelve years of loyal service to the firm. Unemployment benefits are running out. Can’t find a job anywhere. She’s desperate and she wants her kids to continue having the things they’ve always had. Karate lessons. A music teacher. Little by little she’s losing the ability to provide, and pride leads her to some difficult choices.
So…panhandling in supermarket parking lots becomes an option, a desperate option that she takes with greatest reluctance.
“About one person in ten is nice.” she replied. “You can’t believe the abuse I get out here. ‘What’s the matter with you?’” she imitated a shrill pitiless voice, “‘Go get a job like a decent person. Shame on you!’ Women are the worst, especially the ones of a certain age, over forty five, fifty. I don’t bother with the twenty-somethings. They’re just overgrown high school kids, they tell me to go fuck myself. Excuse my language. And you know what? I stand up for myself. I tell them they don’t know what’s going on in my life, they’re not qualified to judge me.”
Her eyes shifted. A woman was loading groceries into a car just down the row. She needed to get back to work.
“Thank you,” she said with sincerity. “I have to make every minute count.”
“Go on,” I said, “Go back to work.”
She had to push herself away from the car. She was bone tired. She didn’t know whether her next approach would end in kindness or invective. Her eyes thanked me for treating her like a human being. She was half an inch from breaking into tears but she pulled herself together.
With each passing week I expect to see more of these parking lot beggars.
Begging is one of the hardest jobs in the world.