I didn’t used to give money to panhandlers – if someone asked me for money I’d brusquely but truthfully tell them that I didn’t carry cash and keep moving. Then I heard an interview on the BBC with a man who lived on the streets for an extended period of time in order to be able to write about the experience and he said that one of the worst parts of it was the feeling of dehumanization – that other people didn’t acknowledge his existence.
I realized how frequently I avoided eye contact with people that I perceived to be potential panhandlers because I wanted to try to avoid the awkward encounter of being asked for, and declining to give, money. That made me think – what if I just … gave them some money? Even just a little, every time? What if I always kept money on me to be able to give? Then I wouldn’t feel like I had to avoid looking at someone, smiling at someone, because if they asked me for money I’d just give them some. Who cares if the story they tell about why they need the money is true – who cares what they use it for – this is a person in need and I am a person of privilege and I can afford to give folks a buck or two here and there and not notice the difference in my budget.
So I started keeping cash with me. The difference I was hoping for – feeling more inclined to make eye contact and smile at people – definitely resulted. I also enjoy having cash on hand to give to buskers, something I wanted to make a point of doing regularly since reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.
Matthew and I usually have dinner at our neighborhood food co-op’s hot bar on Saturday evenings. Tonight there was a man at one of the tables with drawing supplies set out on the table and he struck up a conversation with us. He was selling hand lettered Mother’s Day cards and, because I had cash from my panhandling fund, I bought one from him. He was an odd duck but a sweet man – we chatted about dramatic weather and how spicy the chicken wings are at the hot bar (he said they set his head on fire – honestly they’re pretty damned mild really). It was the kind of interaction I would’ve tried to escape from before – and I’m still not great at it; I’m an introvert and chatting with strangers is hardly my strong suit but within reason/limits if someone wants to talk a little, I want to be open to that. Nudging myself out of the bubble.