Meanwhile, a story (Pre-Katrina New Orleans)

When I was younger I was a homeless hitchhiker. I spent a lot of that time working for day labor (“rent a bum”) companies. But they didn’t have one that was close enough to me in New Orleans. So I ended up begging a lot.

And yes, begging is a con. But it’s still just sales, only the product you are trying to sell is your personal struggle. No matter how real or horrifying it is, you’re selling it. You have to get people to buy it.

Actually, I didn’t have to beg much. I was young and attractive, but not overly sexual. I tried to make myself approachable to men and woman. I kept as clean as I could…People are more likely to give you money if they can get within arm’s reach of you without passing out from the stench.

There are all sorts of tricks you can learn over time to make more, and everyone has their own game. Humans have built in compassion, an emotional need that is just as primal as the four F’s of survival. We naturally seek compassionate comfort, and we understand, on a very primitive level, that to receive comfort for ourselves, we must give comfort to others in return. However, the levels of need and reciprocation vary greatly from person to person. This is the variable you have to try to account for when you panhandle.

Some panhandlers will simply ask everyone they come across. Sometimes this works, but most of the time you only end up harassing everyone on the street without anything to show for it. And honestly, it’s just plain obnoxious. As much as humans seek and reciprocate compassion, we are individuals who hate being told what to do. If you are too annoying, you go from seeking compassion to telling people what to do and you lose out in the end.  Humans are interesting creatures.

I kept my “game” simple. I kept as clean as I could, as I already explained. I was young enough to look just a little younger than I actually was, so I used that to my advantage. Then I added a twist…I always tried to seem upbeat. I know this sounds weird, but if it’s done right it can really work. Too pathetic or desperate always looks like a sham to me. I grew up poor, even in poverty you can find some simple pleasures in life. Denying that while you are begging always just looked like a lie to me, so I never looked overly destitute.

Because I was not the “bother everyone in sight” kind of panhandler, I developed a system. There is no scientific proof behind my system except my own trial and error, this is what worked for me. (And this is only what worked for me 20 years ago, I have no proof it still works today)

Blue collar workers, of every race, are the most likely to give you a little. They are realistic, they know that you will probably spend whatever they give you on beer or something else like that. But they know how hard things can be and won’t begrudge you a little solace. They are also more likely to have cash on them.

(Author’s note: I may sound racists to some, but I refuse to use terms like “African American” or “Mexican American”. I believe that if you add a qualifier like African or Mexican before the word American it is easier to disqualify that race as being American first, and deserving the same rights as other Americans. After all, we don’t call white people “Caucasian Americans”.)

Black men are usually generous as are black women who are older than 40. It’s the same basic mentality of blue collar workers. Although black women will usually get you food if you say you are begging for food, they tend to be uncomfortable with feeding addictions or alcoholism.

White women under 40 will always ignore you. But over 40 can be more compassionate and are worth taking a chance on.

Hispanics and Latinos are all across the board. It’s usually best to go ahead and take the chance…although they often lapse into not understanding English if they don’t want to seem rude to you.

The type that I absolutely didn’t bother with was white men, in their 20’s and 30’s, in suits. They were as just as often rude as they were demeaning or sexually disgusting. Occasionally, one of them would absently drop something into the cup or your hand or whatever you were using to accept donations. But only if you didn’t ask. If you asked they would either sneer at you, or worse, ask for a sexual favor in return. So I usually just ignored them.

But on one particular day I was really desperate. I’m a girl, I need tampons. Usually I was prepared but weeks of malnutrition had upset my normal cycle and my period had come early. In a place like New Orleans in September this could be dangerous. Not to mention that you start to attract flies…and that’s just disgusting.

I was desperate enough that I resorted to asking nearly everyone who passed. This included a handsome, well dressed, white man in his late 20’s or early 30’s in a suit and on a phone. I didn’t expect him to have heard me when I asked if he could spare something. He was moving fast past me and talking on his phone and to the other man with him. He was two steps past me when he reached into his pocket and handed me the first bill he pulled out.

It was a $50

Shit!

I knew that if he meant to hand me a $1 bill and handed me this instead it would end up being my fault. If he had enough friends, he could ruin this block for me. So I went after him. It took me a second, but I got his attention. Of course he was annoyed that I had interrupted him, who wouldn’t be.

I apologized for interrupting him and handed him the bill back, saying that he must have made a mistake. He just looked at me, shook his head, went back to his call, and kept walking. The guy with him called “Just keep it” over his shoulder as they kept going.

I quickly got the hell off the street.

Other panhandlers had seen the exchange and could smell that something was up. And none of us are above begging from each other, especially if we knew someone had a good day.

I went into the A&P and bought what I needed, plus a bar of soap and some shampoo. When I got to the register I asked for some ones. My next stop was a little thrift shop where I got a new pair of jeans and a cute shirt. Then I was off to the laundromat. I washed my new clothes and the spares I kept in my bag. After I changed, I washed what I had been wearing too. After that I still had $30 left. So I grabbed a case of cheap beer and headed to a friend’s house where I could trade it for a shower and a roof for the night.

The $20 I had left fed me for the rest of the month. I bought a bag of rice and a bottle of hot sauce to keep at the aforementioned friend’s house. We ate rice and hot sauce, made on his hot plate, all month. It was nice.

But by the next month I was back on the corner panhandling. I was still nervous about the guy who had dropped me the $50. Would he come back when he had more time and demand “services” for his payment? Would he report me as a thief? (At that time I was kind of notorious for picking the pockets of rich, drunk college kids who leaned on me a little too hard after they toured the bars on Bourbon Street.) I had no idea what to expect, but experience had told me it was going to be bad.

So when I saw him coming down the block the day I went back out, I panicked. I turned my back to the street like I wasn’t panhandling at all. But I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was him. He was still on his phone, he wasn’t making eye contact with me, but he was holding out a bill that was folded so that I couldn’t see what it was. When I hesitated, he put it directly into my hand and walked off. I shouted “Thank you” as he kept walking.

It was another $50.

Fuck!

Suspicions doesn’t even begin to describe my emotional state. This guy was wanting something. He wears tailored suits and has one of those fancy (at the time) flip phones. But maybe he’s just one of those people who just hands out money to look good. But still, $50 is pretty much more than I needed to live on at the time.

For the next couple of days I watched him as he walked to and from work. He was always on his phone, sometimes he walked with the guy who was with him that first day, but usually he was alone. He seemed completely oblivious to everything around him. And I never saw him give anything to anyone else.

Now I was worried. Was he grooming me? I could pass for 16 sometimes and had used that to my advantage more than once. So did he think I was a kid and was waiting to take advantage of me? What was his game?

I decided that I’d just avoid him the next time I was out begging. It was more than a month later.

This time, when I saw him coming, I ducked down Pirate Alley to avoid him.

The son of a bitch followed me!

No phone to his ear, and this time actually making eye contact, he held out another $50 bill to me. “Why are you doing this?” I asked him. He didn’t answer, he just held the money out. “I’m not a prostitute, I’m not going to do anything for this. Now or later.”

“Is that what you think?” he asked. “That’s why you don’t want to take it?” he seemed amused. It was insulting actually.

…But still, $50?

“Why?” I asked again, the $50 still hanging between us.

He sighs and smiles. “When I gave you the first $50 by accident you chased me down and tried to give it back. I felt stupid, so I didn’t take it back. It wasn’t going to break me so it wasn’t a big deal to let you keep it. When I didn’t see you around after than I was sure you had killed yourself with a drug overdose or something. But when you showed back up you were wearing new clothes, looked better, and were cleaner. So I gave you another. Now you have new shoes on, a new back pack, and you look even better than before.” I must have still looked suspicious because he kept going. “I felt stupid for giving you that first $50 because it was just going to go to waste. You’d use it on drugs or beer or something like that and you’d be right back out the next day looking for more. But you weren’t. You took it and did something with it. You improved yourself with it.”

He grabbed my hand and folded it closed over the $50. “When I drop money in the offering plate, or in the red buckets, or whatever, I don’t see what happens to it. But when I give it directly to you I see you using it to improve day by day.”

Not used to such simple kindness, I got rude. “So I’m like a stray dog that you’re feeding then?”

He shakes his head and walks off. And I know that’s the last $50 I’ll see from him.

It is, but only because I left New Orleans shortly after that.

I still don’t completely grasp why he was so willing to give a chubby little street kid with pink hair $50 a month.

But he was a good person.

I hope the storm didn’t get him.

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About pynomrah

I like stuff, and things.
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One Response to Meanwhile, a story (Pre-Katrina New Orleans)

  1. Pingback: 3 reasons why crowdfunding usually doesn’t work | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

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