The African-American man was decently dressed, very well spoken, had the good sense to tell me his name (John) and put his hand out to shake mine. He told me his age which was exactly my own. In his case it was said as an apology, as if at this age he shouldn’t be in this position. He pulled out his wallet and showed me his Veteran’s ID with name and photo.
This interaction took place indoors at a Panera Bread restaurant in Tampa. I’d been working on emails on my tablet after a string of business meetings, dressed more formally than usual. In a heartbeat I knew I was about to be hit up for cash. I was looking at humiliation and despair in the eye. And they were looking back at me.
Like many people who lived and/or worked in major cities for years – San Francisco in my case – I’ve been panhandled by real pros competing for my attention and my dollar. It happened so often that I’ve conditioned a response, and react almost unconsciously to beggars, by using these tactics:
- Consistently scanning my environment when I’m walking. I can see them coming, and I’m usually right.
- Going temporarily blind and deaf while slightly speeding up and blurting out “Sorry.”
- Knowing when I’m dressed as a mark (expensive suit, tie and shirt, shined shoes) to be extra vigilant. Knowing when I’m not dressed as a mark how to blend in a bit.
- Carrying little or no cash. Actually, this is a holdover from all those years of being a single parent who didn’t carry cash because whenever I did it evaporated. To this day I’m known for flying across the country with only $2 in my pocket. And not having any cash with me makes “Sorry” so much easier when being panhandled.
Ironically, I had just been to the cash machine and gotten out the outrageous amount of $100. I gave John $50. Was I being conned? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Am I sorry I gave him the cash? Not a bit. What I’m sorry about is that my panhandler radar kicked in. I wish I had asked him to sit down for a coffee and an interview so that I could write his story here for all of us to see.
I didn’t miss an opportunity to be kind. I did miss an opportunity to give him the dignity of being heard and appreciated, if only briefly.
John could have been my friend or relative or former employee, reaching out to strangers, hoping for compassion. He didn’t seem like a grifter, and I don’t believe his humility was an act. He was an American man my age in dire straights. I am convinced this is already a trend for a huge number of older Americans of all races, and it’s only likely to get worse.
Wherever you are, John, I hope in what you’re seeking that you’ll find what you need.