Letter to a young panhandler

Why I didn’t give you any money.

| December 04, 2013
"Hell, maybe it was because I was angry at myself for having gone to Walmart for light bulbs."
"Hell, maybe it was because I was angry at myself for having gone to Walmart for light bulbs."

Dear Young Man Panhandling Outside Walmart,

I’m sure you don’t remember me not giving you any money. I was probably one of dozens who mumbled something to the effect of “sorry, can’t help” as they passed, and those dozens probably made up just a small percentage of the total number that rebuffed you.

On your end, you’re one of maybe 10 or 11 folks who’ve hit me up on the street in just the few weeks since the weather cooled. I’ve given money to some; I haven’t to most. I have no special reason to remember you, either.

But you’ve been on my mind a bit. I’m one of those sort of naturally guilt-ridden types, anyway, but I’ve specifically been wondering about you, and my decision not to throw some change your way. You see, I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings about panhandling — some charitable, others not so much. They’re the kind of views that will probably never be reconciled. I’ll probably always deal with the subject on a case-by-case, gut-feeling basis.

In the interest of a bit of indulgent navel-gazing, though, please allow me to try to work some things out by examining a few of the possible reasons why I might’ve shut you down.

Because you were 18 or 20, white, lucid and not conspicuously disabled in any way.

Because you were camped out in front of a Walmart instead of at a bus stop or alley or in front of a library, and you looked like you’d gotten pretty comfy there.

Because I’d seen four homeless people older and a thousand times more in need of help than you just that morning.

Because times are tight.

Because I’ve stood outside innumerable music venues while countless kids tried to bum money from me, claiming they were “opting out” of a fascist, capitalist system and completely unaware they hadn’t opted out of anything. That they were, in fact, very much like kids who’d inherited millions — whenever they inevitably needed to engage the system, they did it with money somebody else earned.

Because I have to work. (Not in the “get a job, you lazy, entitled shithead” way. In the “I’m lazy and entitled, and I have to work to pay for stuff, and until such a time as no one has to work if they don’t want to, if I have to work, then everybody has to work” way. Because I’m jealous, basically.)

Because I have issues with people who beg for money when, on the face of it, it seems they still have other options. More effort-intensive options, sure, but … I dunno, for me, I still equate panhandling with a pretty serious last-ditch compromise of self-worth.

Because the weather was spectacular.

Hell, maybe I didn’t give you a dollar because I was angry at myself for having made the decision to go into a Walmart for light bulbs. I’ll never know.

It’s interesting to think about, though.

For what it’s worth, if you’re someone who finds solace in schadenfreude, you’ll be amused to know Walmart didn’t even have the right kind of light bulbs.

Get more of Scott's writing at lifeasweblowit.com, and follow him @harrellscott … if you dare.

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Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

I thought I'd be pissed off after reading this but I agree, and I appreciate that the author implied that not all disabilities are visible. That is important to remember when someone appears able-bodied and is asking for help, because they very well may not be.

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Posted by Ryan Blood on 12/04/2013 at 5:13 PM

Mr Harrell,

It strikes me odd that you would deny a panhandler money on arbitrary grounds, but don't have any moral issues shopping at a place that pays their employees a substandard wage, imports cheap products from overseas that displace American workers, and are most likely manufactured under conditions that are well below our environmental or ethical standards.

Walmart is a parasite, worse than a million panhandlers ever could be, but you don't seem to have a problem giving them your money. I mean, it's a shame that you didn't get the right kind of lightbulb (for the sake of this story at least), but the fact is you decided to pass judgement on a person, found them unworthy, and moved along with only a minor bruise to your sense of guilt. I'm not saying you're a bad person, Mr. Harrell, because we all take shortcuts for convenience, or for thriftiness, or a multitude of reasons. However, you affect others with how you choose to spend your money - either directly or indirectly. I understand you felt bad about not helping the young white man - that's totally your prerogative. But it does speak to a sense of classism. If he was black, you would feel magnanimous? Asian? Native Cherokee? Latino? Where is the line where you set who is and who is not worthy of empathy or charity? Maybe it's the fact that he was smart enough to go to a place that had more foot traffic than the bus stop, or alley, or in front of the library. You punished him for his ingenuity and understanding of human traffic patterns. This is not to say the man is owed or entitled to your gift, but it does speak to a way of thinking about people that is not about who they are, but rather how you see them to be.

My hope is that from this experience, you learned not to judge people based solely upon their appearance, their location, or their race. I would also hope that you would learn that your business choices are equally as impactful as your altruistic ones. I hope that you bear this in mind the next time you need lightbulbs, or see another panhandler. We are all one tragedy away from joining their ranks, and for your sake, I hope the person who sees you chooses not to judge you as harshly as you did the young man in front of Walmart.

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Posted by Jason Bruzzichesi on 12/04/2013 at 6:49 PM

Scott u tickle the shit out if me and i thank you...when u gonna start another band?

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Posted by Hector Mayoral on 12/04/2013 at 10:20 PM

When you see panhandlers this young, just remind yourself that foster kids age out of the system at 18. Many of them are homeless, have no skills, no family guidance and nowhere to go. Just sayin'.

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Posted by Mambisa on 12/05/2013 at 12:02 PM

Letter to an author whose article I didn't read all the way through:

Because it seemed pointless and uninsightful. This article clearly had nothing new or interesting to say about the phenomenon of homelessness.

Because this article on the subject seemed to hold no quantitative facts or perspective and amounted to little more than solipsistic drivel.

Because the internet is a big place and I have better shit to read.

Because this wreaks of white privilege attempting to deal with its laziness overriding its liberal guilt.

Because we've all experienced a moment where we didn't give change to someone, but didn't feel the need to rationalize it through a turgid open letter posted in a public forum.

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Posted by insert name here on 12/05/2013 at 9:44 PM
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