San Francisco and a Wedding: The Panhandler

We usually avoid and ignore panhandlers. In big cities there just seem to be so many of them, sitting on the curbs with their cups held out. We mostly just walk by, look somewhere else, sometimes make some benign reply to their plea for “just a bit of money”.

Yesterday we had a different experience.

J and I were to meet M, the mother of the bride, for the first time, for breakfast at a restaurant, half way between our hotels. We’re still stuck on Ontario time, so we were early. M wasn’t feeling well, so she was late. We were asked to wait outside the restaurant because it was busy, and quite small, making tables scarce and valuable.

We went back outside to wait, and wander a bit. While we were discussing next moves, a young, relatively clean, man comes up to us.

” Good morning” he says.

“Good morning to you,” I reply, wondering who or what he is.

His face lights up. “Thanks for seeing me as a person,” he says. “So many people act like they don’t see people like me”

“I wonder if I could just talk to you for a minute,” he goes on. “I’m going to be starting a job soon and need to get myself cleaned up and find some clothes that are proper for the job. I’ve jot a good start ” pointing at some bags on the sidewalk with a pair of dress shoes and a white shirt clearly visible.

“I’m not going to ask you for money” he explains, “but, I was wondering if you might help me buy breakfast. I’ve got $1.38 and that is just not enough.”

I ask him when he has eaten last. ” It was twelve hours ago unless,” he concedes after some guilty hesitation, “if you don’t count the banana I got from the dumpster earlier this morning”

The big brown eyes, a sense of compassion, a sense he was telling me the real story, and the hook was in my mouth.

“Will five dollars get you anything at the place across the street?” I ask.

“It sure would,” he says.  He expresses his understanding of the value of our time and the fact he appreciates so much our willingness to take some time from our busy, valuable schedule for him and his life. J is not buying it, but, digs out the five dollar bill, and passes it to me. Handshakes all round and we move on down the street.

You’ll remember, we still need to meet M, who is now on her way, but will still be a while. We wander down the street, poke in some shops, and return to the restaurant from the other side of the street. Our new friend has not gone to get breakfast, but rather is in earnest conversation with another pedestrian. A wallet comes out, handshakes are shared, the pedestrian moves on.

When M arrived, we got the window seat in the restaurant. I watched my friend convince two more people to take out their wallets, always producing more than just a single dollar bill. One fellow took him across the street and bought him breakfast and just before we were ready to leave, someone else brought him to the table next to ours and did the same thing.

This guy was amazing. He should be in sales.

How did it make me feel? A number of emotions really. On one hand, it was good to see that when presented with a need that was tangible and well articulated, people are generous and do respond. I also feel a little jilted by what may have just been a well rehearsed scam that played on my emotions and those of others. In the end, the five dollars provided an hour of pretty cheap entertainment as we watched this fellow do his thing.

J is adamant, we’ve used up our budget for pan-handling, homeless people for the weekend.



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