Tag Archives: panhandling

Working Hard

These days, people who have a job are mostly happy to have one. A lot of people who don’t have one would like one. Some people are satisfied not to have work, especially if they can take advantage of government help. The number of people filing for disability payments has skyrocketed, for example. Of course, many of those people truly can’t work, but it’s not a coincidence that the number of applicants has grown dramatically during a time when jobs are especially hard to find.

We all have our reasons for what we do, or don’t do. We’re all trying to get by, and for a lot of families things are pretty rough these days.

There are some highly entrepreneurial people who seem to work very hard at not working. Some of them appear to be unemployable – like the people on State Street in Madison who sit in rags with a beggar’s cup. Others, though, are very creative and talented, but not willing or able to work in the conventional sense.

Here are two examples:

The first was reported by a friend of mine who was sitting in the Amtrak terminal waiting room in Chicago. A young man nearby was talking on his phone. Ostensibly, he was speaking with his mother. “No,” he said, “they insist on cash and they won’t accept my credit card. I told them that I have to get home to help you, but there’s nothing I can do without $10 in cash so I can buy a ticket.”

I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. My friend almost gave the kid some money to solve his quandary, but didn’t. Looking around to see nobody coming forward, the stranded teen went to the other side of the terminal and had the same phone conversation – or pretended to – and that performance netted him the $10. My friend saw him outside a while later enjoying a cigarette with a friend. I guess it was break time.

Months later, my friend was in that same terminal, and the same young man was pulling his scam again. It sounds a lot like going to work, but is probably more lucrative, and as a bonus, there are no taxes to worry about.

The second con happened to me twice. Well, I fell for it once. The second time I was wiser. While filling up the tank of a rental car at a gas station near an airport, a woman frantically approached me. She was neatly dressed, in her 50’s, and looked like a nice lady. She emotionally told her story. She had just left her abusive husband, and was starting a new life. She had a new job – today was to be the first day – and she needed gas money to get there. Normally very cynical about these things, I gave her some money. She thanked me profusely, and a moment later she was gone.

Last week the same thing happened, though in a different city. This woman was wearing the kind of outfit that a receptionist would wear in a medical office. Same deal: divorce, new job, needed gas to get there. This time I said no, and she gave me a dirty look before going to the lady on the other side of the gas pump island. She scored. Then she hopped into a car being driven by a man talking on a smart phone, and they drove to the gas station across the street.
In both cases the level of performance was very good – equal to any community theater. I know a lot of sales managers who would kill to get that kind of talent on their sales teams.

I don’t know the backstory of these people, but I assume their lives aren’t very good. It’s possible drugs are involved, or some kind of extortion that makes them do what they do.

The bottom line is that some people will do anything to get a job, and it appears some people will do anything to keep from getting one. As my dad said about a million times, “It takes all kinds to make a world.”


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I Pardon Your Beg

Earlier this year I was in Texas.  As I filled up the gas tank of my rental car before returning it, a nice lady came up to me – I assumed in order to ask directions.

She looked to be between 60 and 65 years old.  She was clean and tidy, and wearing clothes consistent with being a housewife.  She seemed like a normal, middle class lady.

As I waited for the gas tank to fill, she was almost in tears, telling me that she was $12 short of the money she needed to check into a hotel for the night.  She had just left her husband, and her sister would be picking her up tomorrow.

I have a policy about not giving money to people who approach me.  If I give it to them, I feel like a rube.  But, sometimes when I don’t give it to them, I feel like I’m cold-hearted.

When I worked on the University of Wisconsin campus, I became accustomed to being panhandled on State Street.  I actually had people come up to me when I was eating lunch in restaurants and ask for some of my food, and they did it in a fairly threatening way.

A friend of mine was in the Chicago Amtrak station waiting room.  She heard a teenager talking on his cell phone – ostensibly with his mother.  After hanging up, he asked my friend for a sum of money he needed to get the train home.  I think the amount was $10.  She almost said yes, but didn’t.  Later, she heard him duplicate the supposed phone call near someone else, and made the same request, nearly verbatim.  Better yet, she found herself in that waiting room some months later and, guess what?  Same guy, same scam.

So, what did I do with the request I got from the woman on the run in Texas?  I gave her the money.  If she was playing a role, she did it with great believability.  She didn’t seem like a scam artist, which, I guess, would make her an especially good one.

I don’t know, and I never will know, if her story was on the level or not.  I’d like to think she was somebody in need who I helped start a new life.  But, she could just as easily have been somebody who was saving up to buy some nice crystal meth, and my gift might lead to a short life of misery for her.

It’s probably a good idea to make charitable gifts through organizations who know how to differentiate between people in need and scammers, though even they get taken for fools sometimes.  Food stamp and welfare fraud cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and gives a black eye to the people who truly are in need.

But, from time to time, a situation comes up where logic doesn’t seem to be sufficient in making a decision on whether to give in or not.  Sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut, or your heart, or some internal organ.  You may be doing the right thing, or you may get played for a fool.  If you’re like me, it won’t be the first time.

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