“Excuse me, do you have a nickel or dime?” the clean-cut, thirtyish man asked me. “I’m trying to buy a doughnut.” I opened my wallet and gave him 50 cents, then watched as he approached another man with the same request, pocketing a few more coins. He seemed so smooth, so casual, that I couldn’t help thinking, “There goes a real professional.”
Anyone can beg – some men do it every night – but it takes a professional to do it well, someone who has spent years perfecting his craft, advancing gradually from student to master. This man was so skilled, he must have earned a Ph.D. (panhandling degree).
Unfortunately, many cities have placed restrictions on this man and other panhandlers. Some cities have banned aggressive panhandling, others have banned all types of panhandling, even coming down hard on nurse’s aides. In some areas, like Manatee County, Florida, panhandlers can be fined as much as $500, prompting a few of them to hold signs that say, “Please help. Need money to pay fine.”
Beggars are naturally upset about laws that restrict them. “We’re just trying to make a living,” said John Grant, president of the newly formed American Union of Panhandlers (AUP). Members of the union plan to bring lawsuits against a number of cities, Grant said, as soon as they’ve panhandled enough money to hire a lawyer.
Grant, himself a veteran beggar, agreed to sit down with me for a long interview, but at the last minute, he begged off. I finally cornered him on the street, promising to keep the interview short and treat him to lunch afterward.
Me: “What do you hope to achieve by having a union?”
Grant: “Well, we hope to fight for the rights of the countless people who work in the panhandling industry.”
Me: “Forgive me, I must be having trouble with my hearing. I thought you used the word ‘work.’”
Grant: “I did use the word ‘work.’ Most of us work very hard. If you don’t think it’s work, you try standing outside all day, braving extreme weather, car fumes and foul language. I’ve been rejected so many times, I feel like a wrinkle on Barbara Walters’ face. People just don’t appreciate panhandlers enough.”
Me: “You think they should appreciate you?”
Grant: “Of course. We perform an invaluable service to them. They give a few coins to us and they feel good for the rest of the day. They think they’re the second coming of Mother Teresa. Not only that, when they look at us, they stop complaining about their own lives, at least for a minute or two. We give them perspective. You can’t put a price on that. But if you want, I’ll take a buck or two.”
Me: “So you don’t believe that panhandlers should be restricted in any way?”
Grant: “Well, I don’t think we should be restricted by politicians, who are much better than us at sticking their hands out. Let individual people say ‘no’ to us. If you don’t want to give to us, that’s fine. But if you do, we’re thankful. We accept quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies. Some of us even accept Canadian coins.”
Me: “But some panhandlers are a little too aggressive. They don’t accept ‘no’ very easily.”
Grant: “I don’t think they’re aggressive. I think they’re just go-getters. They’ve very motivated and ambitious. They’re eager to do their jobs well.”
Me: “A lot of people believe that panhandlers use the money they collect to buy cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.”
Grant: “People shouldn’t always assume the worst. I remember hearing about a panhandler in New York who had a sign that said, ‘Please help. Need money for pot.’ People thought he wanted to buy marijuana. But he was just an immigrant from India who wanted to cook something and didn’t realize the importance of an ‘a.’”