07 November 2008


If there is a Panhandling 101 offered in schools these days, this should be on the short list of don'ts. Do not, under any circumstances, wait until a prospective donor passes your position before calling after him, "Sir? Sir! Oh Sir! Excuse me! I said ex-kyoooos me! Look at him! Man won't even look at me! Are you deaf? Excuse me!" Panhandlers do this for one of two reasons: 1.) They believe that they are performing a little street theatre. In other words, the guy whom they allowed to stroll by before hollering their melodramatic excuse me's is not the true audience for this performance. They are trying to convince other, yet to arrive passersby that they have been dissed, that some arrogant citizen refused to acknowledge them, treated them as if they were invisible, etc. Since panhandlers sometimes actually are treated as invisible, this little bit of theatrics sometimes creates a certain pathos or bathos or God knows what, enough to generate a couple of quick donations. Not from the guy whom the panhandler is hollering at, naturally, but anybody who might follow after him. Victimhood is currency. or 2.) Panhandlers internalize their status. Not surprisingly, some panhandlers become jaded and bitter, and begin to believe that it's not just theatre, that the guy who walked by really did victimize them by simply not donating any change. Panhandlers who fall into this level of desperation and cynicism usually experience a dramatic drop in income. Panhandlers who think this way normally, i.e. have a chip on their shoulder from day one, should not be out begging, for they manage to alienate even other panhandlers. If you try to use rejection as a way to create a drama of which you are the center, you might succeed as a guest on the Springer show, but you will fail as a panhandler. You will be arrested more often, attract less money, and one of those arrogant old geezers at whom you hollered "Excuse me," might turn around and smack you upside the head with a lead-tipped cane. This is a rough business. It is no place for amateurs or dilettantes. In my experience, about 1 in 3 panhandlers is legitimate, i.e. does not use the money collected for alcohol or drugs. Someday I might post about how one goes about making such distinctions, but it helps if you have spent a lot of time rubbing elbows with people who have worked a panhandle corner, either by necessity or by choice. And if you are thinking about resorting to begging on the street, be careful, be circumspect, and be polite. It really is like any other business.


VisuaLingual said...

David, if you haven't read Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier, I highly recommend it. It's at the main library. Specifically, one section deals with what the author calls "interactional vandalism" -- how the social code plays itself out on the street between housed and unhoused people. Duneier makes some compelling points, but I'm not entirely sold on his argument, and I'd be curious to know what you think of it.

davidcarney said...

I'll put "interactional vandalism" on my to-do list. I mean reading about it, not doing it. The whole mysterious process of assigning names to things fascinates me.

VisuaLingual said...

"Social contract" was what I meant to write... The whole book and, in fact, ethnography in general, seems to be the careful sifting of anecdotal evidence into technical-sounding categories, embellishing observations with terms like this one, until they start to sound like science. To me, it all has a bit of a "house of cards" quality to it. Maybe I just don't understand the social sciences. Nonetheless, it's an interesting read.

davidcarney said...

In fairness to Duneier, the scientific method itself is human behavior. So the social sciences require human behavior to study ----human behavior. Yikes. But I still plan on perusing his book/house of cards. Somebody
has to study this stuff.

All original text (C) 2007, 2008 David J. Carney. All rights reserved.

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