I’m gonna be standin’ on the corner
12th Street and Vine
With my Kansas City baby
And a bottle of Kansas City wine.
In 1961, John Howard Griffin published an extraordinary book, so famous that I learned about it as a junior in my allwhite, allboys high school here in Cincinnati. That book, Black Like Me, chronicled Griffith’s sixweek journey through deep South states, after having had his skin artificially blackened so the young Dallas man would pass as a “Negro.” What Griffin learned on his odyssey bordered on the horrible, but made for a mind-expanding book.
Over the past few months I had been considering a very modest attempt to do something similar to Griffin’s monumental research project. I wanted to feel what it was like to be a panhandler, to gain a sense of what those hundreds of Cincinnatians feel as they take to the streets, sign in hand, to earn their “livelihood.” On, Friday the 13th my birthday, my sign in hand, I received the long anticipated “learning experience.”
Six weeks ago, I made a cardboard sign, which read: “Another Hungry Person. CAN U HELP? Please.” I hate lying, so I didn’t want to say that I was homeless (although I had undergone homelessness for about six weeks in 1995). To make certain that I would indeed be hungry, I ate nothing after Thursday night. This would be my longest “fast” since the late ’80s.
For the past year I had been letting my gray hair grow out to almost shoulder length curls. But I had decided I would clean up my act and get a haircut on my birthday. For the panhandling experiment I wanted to look like someone who was down on his luck. So I told my Streetvibes editor that I needed to do this “research” project while I still looked…seedy. He agreed to come out on Friday night and take my picture, as I stood with my sign at the northeast corner of 12 Vine.
Hitting the streets
I decided I would spend three hours panhandling. I left home at about 6:15 PM and headed to OTR’s restaurant district on Vine. For the first twenty minutes I “earned” only a dollar for my efforts. Not long after my arrival at the corner, a young woman set up shop on the other side of the street. She had no sign, just a violin, which she played with a fair amount of skill. I watched, jealously, as passersby leaned down to put money into her violin case. Clearly, her version of panhandling was doing much better than mine.
Then a fortyish guy, strolling by with his lady friend, dropped a bill in my coffee can. “All the best, Man,” he said, and walked off. I said “Thank you very much,” before looking in my can.
I looked. I couldn’t help smiling. I looked across the street at the violinist. She had had a half dozen donations already. I had counted them. But I felt certain that I was way ahead of her, cashwise. Thus, my smile.
I had given money to panhandlers and beggars for the past twelve years, ever since moving to “the ghetto.” In the old days it was often “fiddycents.” Now it was almost always a dollar. The most I had ever donated was a Hamilton ($10), one day long ago when I had some major extra cash in my wallet.
At some point I noticed that more people were crossing Vine at the southeast side of the intersection, this because of a play at the Ensemble Theater. So I moved across the street. Pickings were pretty slim there, in spite of all the wellheeled theatergoers who had paid $45 dollars each for their tickets. I was disappointed in their stinginess. I am a “theater person” myself.
I recognized one couple as they approached on their way to the play. The woman fished in her purse for a bill. Then I watched the gleam of recognition on her husband’s face. We had been occasional friends since our college days. He knew that I was an OTR resident, but I could tell that my scraggly appearance had taken him by surprise. “What are you doing?” he asked, with a trace of anxiety on his face. “A story for Streetvibes,” I replied. “Good,” he said, obviously relieved, “I kinda thought that.”
I asked him to take a couple of pictures of me with my phone, just in case my editor failed to show. This turned out to be fortuitous, because my editor indeed failed to show that night. The couple and I chatted a bit. The wife dropped the five in my coffee can, and they headed off to the theater. I was very pleased that she had decided to give me the money before she knew it was me.
This part of the experiment turned out to be an unexpected surprise, one which made me a bit uncomfortable. Before I had crossed the street to beg from the theater crowd, a man walked up with a small pizza box from A Tavola, the fancy pizza joint. “Do you want some food?” he asked.
I didn’t really want any food at this point, but my sign said I was hungry, which I was. Very hungry. So I graciously accepted his offering. But I felt strange having access to food without devouring it. I put the box down on the little wall behind me, and ignored it. Before crossing the street, I placed the little box very carefully into the half full city trash container sitting almost in front of me. I told myself I would retrieve the box later.
By 8:00 PM, the theater crowd had gone inside, so I moved to a location that my editor had suggested. I stood in front of the Sloane boutique, located between The Senate restaurant and A Tavola. Tons of people walked past me there.
All in all, over the next three hours, I received four more food donations. I noticed that people were offering me food without even glancing at my sign. I offered the second pizza box almost immediately to a very drunken white man who tottered nearby. He sat down and ate it, right at the doorstep of the restaurant where it had been prepared.
The other three items I placed in a pile on the ledge behind me. One woman handed me a box, explaining that she had already taken a bite, but if I wanted it, the contents were mine to eat. I accepted it, knowing that I would probably not eat it.
Everyone whom I’ve talked with regarding this panhandling story wanted to know how much I got. I got exactly $40. The twenty. Three fives. And five singles. This means that I had earned about $13 for each of the three hours of hard work. Some friends from the Homeless Coalition who had “worked” as real panhandlers had told me that, on some days, they did pretty well. On others, not so well. My experience echoed both of these situations. The first half of the night was profitable. The second half…dreadfully unprofitable.
If I were relying on panhandling to make a go of it, the night had been good. But half of the money had come from one person. The more sobering fact was that only nine people had responded to my panhandling efforts. In three hours. Three people per hour, from among the three hundred or so who had walked by me during each hour. Statistically, this was not quite a positive show of human kindness. Ten in a thousand? 1%. Four people had given generously. But for the most part I was underwhelmed.
By far, the majority of the folks who walked by me had plenty of money. That’s why they were in the neighborhood, partying. The vast majority—90 to 95% of them—chose not to glance my way. Obviously, like everyone who comes downtown or lives downtown, they were used to us beggars. And they had developed a method of avoidance, of refusing to notice people in need. No doubt, most of these middleclass folks would have preferred that I didn’t exist. They would rather that the homeless and the hungry were somewhere else, were out of site. So they made me invisible. Good trick.
I tried to make eye contact with everyone who walked by, just as I had seen other panhandlers do when I drove by them standing at many of the intersections downtown. A few of them glanced my way. One man said, “Have a good life, Sir. I mean it.” He didn’t give me any money, but I felt his greeting was sincere.
Oddly, or so it seemed, I received lovely smiles from a number of beautiful young women. I smiled back, welcoming these smiles as if they were monetary gifts. In some ways, to this old man, they were better than money.
Early in the evening one couple stared at my sign. The man took a bill from his wallet, and asked, “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” I told him that it had been almost an entire day. I told him that I wasn’t lying about that. He held out a five-dollar bill. “You’ll buy food with this if I give it to you. Right?” I told him that I buy beer as well as food. “I’m not going to lie about that.”
I don’t think anyone has the right to “legislate” or demand their own notions of morality and proper behavior. He and his wife were probably going to have drinks with their dinner that night. He dropped the money into my can. He seemed nice. He seemed sad, probably that I might use his money to seek solace in “demon rum.”
For me, this whole experiment had been envisioned and conducted out of my desire to walk for a while (an admittedly short while) in the shoes of very poor people. People struggling to survive by doing what most of us middleclass folks would consider a demeaning, perhaps even degrading activity. Begging.
Only once in my life can I recall anything similar. During my high school years, we had to sell chances on a car being raffled by our school. I remember how much I hated knocking on door after door, getting mostly turn downs. I felt the activity was beneath me. I felt demeaned. Thanks to my grandmother, I attended a “rich boys” school. My own folks were working class poor. I knew that the parents of most of my classmates were buying all of their sons’ required allotments.
But this panhandling thing was entirely different. From the moment I held my sign in front of me, I felt almost proud to be standing there. I did my best to look dignified. I never felt demeaned.
For the hour and twenty minutes that I spent under the SLOANE sign, I received only one dollar. Although I wasn’t really collecting the money for myself, I began to feel a bit angry, and resentful. Hundreds of people passed by during that time. It was very tedious, standing there, hoping that people would notice me, and respond.
At 9:15 PM, I was approached by a man in a yellow shirt wearing a walkietalkie on his belt. He asked if I knew the rules about panhandling. I asked who he worked for. He said he was head of security for 3CDC. He told me I was violating at least two of the city’s ordinances against panhandling: it was well after the 8 PM curfew, and I was standing within 20 feet of a retail establishment. He told me that the police would be coming by and that I could be arrested. “Your decision,” He shrugged. “I’m just telling you you’re breaking the law.”
I knew that there were better political issues for which I might risk arrest. Remembering what my mother had said about those starving children in China, I retrieved my pizza box, still sitting neatly and cleanly in the trash bin, and headed home with three boxes of food.
The moral of the story
All in all, I had had a good night. I had learned a lot. I knew that I would (probably) never need to beg for my survival. But I can now imagine almost exactly what it would be like to do this hour after hour, day after day.
When I got home, I counted my money, washed my hands, and ate my “free” pizza. As I was writing this story, I recalled a strange and compelling quote from St. Vincent de Paul, who famously worked all his life with and for the poor.
“It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.”
I will, of course, be giving the money I earned to other beggars. Here’s hoping they will have enough love in their hearts to forgive me.