Jan/Feb 1998  •   Salon

Show Some Love: Coping with a Down Year, and Why I'm Opposed to Begging

by Tom Dooley

"It's been a long December, but there's reason to believe that this year will be better than the last." —Counting Crows

It's a natural impulse to be reflective at year's end, so I'll be true to that impulse for a moment or two. If life comes in a series of peaks and valleys, a biorhythmic sine-wave, then this year was not a high point for me. As the year drew to a close, it seemed I was wallowing at the absolute nadir of the wave. I felt listless, unmotivated, outright depressed. The only thing that seemed to help, that made me feel an almost imperceptible lifting of the spirit, was when I heard the lyric quoted above on my way to school one morning. It stuck fiercely in my psyche. I sang it all day, sometimes aloud, and each time I felt a little better. I wrote the words on my chalkboard, so every morning I'd see them again and resume my soundtrack of recovery. I used that lyric like a mantra to make it through to Christmas break.

Over break, the wrestling team I coach continued to practice, but with a lassitude that put my own lack of motivation to shame... until I realized it probably was my lack of motivation, or more importantly, lack of motivating, making them that way. The realization came when I was exhorting one of my wrestlers to be of more help in moving one of our heavy mats. "Come on," I said, "put some love into it!" And that's when I realized I hadn't been putting any love into what I was doing. So now I have a new mantra. I'm trying to remember the reason I teach and coach and edit an electronic magazine and do any of the other things I do isn't and probably shouldn't be a practical one. I've got to remember to show some love.

If you need mantras to make it through the day—or, more accurately in my case, if a mantra at least gives you some kind of focusing spark of hope—then things probably aren't exactly right in your life. The way they are when you're riding the top of the wave. Life is definitely a series of ups and downs, even for the non-manic. And for me, I find the downs are accompanied with enhanced self-involvement. I become increasingly aware of my own situation and state of mind. Self-involvement, though, is the exact opposite of love, which can be defined as devotion to something or someone other than oneself. So, I'm going to try, through the brainwashing method of mantra-reciting if necessary, to get the focus off of myself and my uncertain future, and put it back into accomplishing the here and now.

"It's the kinda night that's so cold, when a bum asks you for a quarter, you give a dollar. If he's out tonight, then he must be truly down." —Cowboy Junkies

A common thought when one is down goes something like this: "Well, at least there are people out there who have it worse than I do." Which brings me to my next subject: begging.

I'm opposed to begging.

Yes, I realize how ridiculous that statement sounds. I mean, for starters, who in their right mind would say they are in favor of begging? And secondly, I might as well say I'm opposed to disease or poverty or teenage pregnancy. These are all social conditions, seemingly unavoidable, and certainly not something you could effectively draw up a petition against or organize a vote about.

Still, I'm opposed. I especially don't believe in giving out money to panhandlers under any circumstances. Even if there was a good chance the recipient wasn't a professional beggar who chose to earn his or her living off other peoples' work. Even if there was an equally good chance the money would go for legitimate needs and not alcohol or other such means of dissipation. Even if only for the simple principle that giving beggars money allows begging to exist. It's a Darwinian concept at work. If no one ever gave money to people on the street, then street people (and society!) would have to find a different method of coping with the factors producing street people in the first place.

Beginning with my last two years of college, when I lived on the South side of Chicago, I've had many encounters with panhandlers. It used to fill me with righteous anger when I couldn't go a city block without at least two and sometimes five people stopping me to ask for cash. It made me angry because I was on my way to being over many tens of thousands of dollars in debt, walking 12 blocks to class and working two jobs. In terms of net worth, I was far poorer than the people asking me for money, because I was in the hole. Way in the hole. And the dishonesty angered me as well. I had a guy deliver a complex story about his needing bus fare because his wallet had been stolen... twice! The two incidents were a couple months apart, and of course he had approached so many people in the interim, he didn't realize he'd tried the same scam on me already.

I also acknowledge there are people who are genuinely in need. There have been times when I decided to take a chance and help somebody. The first was in Chicago. It was a bitterly cold night, and I was walking home with a hot bag of falafel balls from a little Greek restaurant on 53rd street. A very thin, poorly dressed woman with a child bundled in her arms asked me for money. I told her I'd give her the falafel instead, and she took it gladly. It's quite possible that if I'd given her money, it would've gone for drugs instead of food. Who's to say? I hold no illusions as to the grand benevolence of my act, but it felt good nonetheless. It was a small sacrifice on my part (I was broke, and that was my dinner!), which is what I think true acts of charity probably should be. They should be personal, and they should involve giving something of yourself. Somehow, that puts the love in there.

The second time I gave something to a panhandler was in Fairbanks, Alaska. I was right in the middle of a traditionally notorious hangout for bums and drunks from all over the Interior of Alaska. It's on 2nd Avenue, in the local vernacular known as "Two-Street." Over the course of three years, I'd been accosted a number of times by people on Two-Street, but never for money. For some reason, the idea of panhandling just hasn't caught on in Fairbanks (maybe, like I was talking about earlier, natural selection has been working against it there). One day, though, a rough-looking guy who identified himself as Darrel asked me if I could spare a couple dollars. This being the first time I'd been asked for money in Fairbanks, I was curious, so I asked him what he wanted it for, and he said to get something to eat. Without a doubt, it was to get something to drink. I told him I had an errand to run, but that if he wanted to meet me back at that same place in a couple hours, I'd bring him some hamburgers from Burger King. He agreed to the deal, so two hours later I showed up with the food. Sure enough, he was there.

Then I did what struck me, even as I was doing it, a pretty weird thing. I said, "Before I give you this food, I'd just like to ask a favor of you. Please don't ever ask anyone for money on this street again." He looked at me like I was crazy. So I said, "You don't have to promise or anything, I'm just asking you not to do it." Then I gave him the food.

As I turned to go, he said, "Hey, wait a minute. Why did you ask me that?"

"It just bothers me when people beg for money on the street," I told him. "I don't think I or anybody else should have to put up with that."

This led to a discussion. He told me all about his childhood. As an Alaska Native, he had grown up under some difficult conditions. At one point, he described how he realized in his early 30s he had been sexually molested by a white doctor when he was young and had repressed the memory. He told me about life on Two-Street. They have a network of people and places. Everybody knows everybody. As he started on his second hamburger, a very rough-looking woman came up and demanded, "What the hell you doing, Chris?" Then she took the hamburger out of his hand and ate what was left of it with one bite. Later he explained he had a real name and a street name.

I ended up giving Darrel, or Chris, a ride in my car. I had a Camaro Z-28, and he asked if we could just drive around for a few minutes. I think he wanted his friends to see him in it. So we drove around and listened to the radio, and he nearly cried at one song he said had always been his favorite. He sang along, "...it's like trying to catch a falling star." He told me about how he and the woman who had eaten his burger were worried because a man was getting out of prison soon who had been put away by her testimony. The man in question had carved up some people with a broken bottle in a bar fight. I had heard of the guy he was talking about. He also talked about a program he was thinking about trying that would get him dried out and back on his feet. It's called the Old Minto program. A team of Alaska Natives takes you out to the site of an old, abandoned village, miles from anyone else. They force you to dry out, but also to learn or re-learn the traditional native ways. I told him I had heard it was a great program, and that he should do it. I told him I'd be waiting to hear if he had done it. And then I let him out on Two Street and went on with my life.

In the two hours I spent with Darrel, a great many things were said. I'm glad I took the opportunity to buy him that burger and to share the time with him. Perhaps, although I know damned well it's unlikely, but perhaps the experience changed him for the better. Whether it produced any tangible results or not, I'm positive it was more beneficial than if I'd have given him the two dollars he asked for and left it at that.

People who beg for money on the street don't need money as much as they need other things. The fact that they're standing there presupposes something is very wrong in their lives. Unfortunately, it's not safe or practical to buy them burgers and drive them around in your car. Not to mention when there's no guarantee it'll do any good.

I know also, that it's important to remember how fine the line is separating the beggar from the beggee. We live in a country where 95% of the wealth is possessed by 5% of the population. The rest of us, be we middle class or homeless, at least in terms of orders of magnitude, are about on the same level of wealth, power, and privilege. On the other hand, in terms of the essential ingredients of existence and happiness, the person at the intersection holding the cardboard sign sees those of us driving by as being no different than the billionaires.

So, I'm opposed to begging and to giving money to beggars. There may not be a working solution for the homeless and poverty issues we face in America, but giving people handouts not only allows the problem to exist and get worse, but it's also an easy way out for us. Begging, in most respects, is a cowardly yet aggressive act of laziness, dishonesty, and theft. Giving money to beggars is an equally irresponsible act of weakness and apathy. We need to figure out a way to actually help people, not just buy a brief respite from having to deal with them.