Monday, February 18, 2008

Panhandlers and the first impression

Full confession: I live in yuppified Brooklyn. The only “urban fringe” in my neighborhood is the sales rack at Brooklyn Industries. This fact gives me considerable consternation. The upside, at least for someone like me, is that money attracts poverty. It’s not too much money—mostly good young liberals only slightly fattened with their early career riches—so the neighborhood doesn’t rub out the dirt too aggressively. An old white guy sells used books everyday, 7-3, in front of the bagel shop. Another old guy sits on a folding chair in front of the bank and plays an accordion for quarters. The streets in front of a nearby church are cleaned by Doe Fund workers. And there are beggars everywhere.

I’ve gotten to know one of the panhandlers, Jake, reasonably well. He’s tall and thin, African American, probably in his late 50s. He’s almost always smiling, though missing a fair amount of teeth. I’ve found Jake to be lucid and sharp, with a good memory and sense of humor. He runs a focused, purposeful conversation, a skill that always impresses me: first some small talk—weather mostly—then the ask which often builds on the smalltalk: “Cold night tonight. Can you spare some change? Just enough so I can get warm inside.” He stays at an SRO in Crown Heights. It’s not much, he says, but it’s safe and clean enough and “sure beats the shelter.” He’s usually at the same corner from about 5 – 10 pm—enough to work up the $20 nightly cost for the room.

There’s another guy on a nearby corner, though I’ve never really spoken to him. He mutters to himself. He rocks in place. He doesn’t really smile. Sometimes he’ll make comments that can be construed as aggressive (complimenting women’s hair styles and clothing, for example). He’s slightly overweight and balding and wears ill-fitting clothes. He carries two large shopping bags everywhere, filled with hundreds of smaller bags. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by guessing he has a mental illness.

Jake is good at what he does. He’s always talking to folks like me and he seems to be on the streets less than the other guy. He has good resources—a clear mind, his smile, good chit-chat—that he uses well. The other guy isn’t as good. He has a bad vibe, and it hurts him.

You probably know where I’m going with this. Though I know the other guy probably has a greater need, I more frequently give money to Jake. I don't think my preference for Jake derives from a negative judgment of his counterpart, nor even necessarily from a greater sense of comfort with Jake. These are probably factors at some level, but not primary. Rather, I feel like I "invest" in Jake in a way I can't with the other guy: the money goes somewhere, not just to his nightly room but also to a short and sweet conversation that makes me feel good about myself (a selfish and smug, if well-intended, sensation).

The kicker, of course, is that I've never really given the other guy a chance. Based on what I've seen I've decided to keep my distance. It's unfair, to be sure, but I don't think I'm the only one doing it. Who knew you had to dress to impress when begging for quarters in Park Slope?

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