Monday, 10 January 2005
Beggars are choosers
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER - 'There's a lady living somewhere, where it is I do not know.' I've encountered her a few times now, sometimes in the downtown core, sometimes elsewhere-always panhandling. I bring it up because I've come around in thinking about the panhandling culture. Once I was standing on the corner of Pender and Granville, outside the men's clothing shop there on the southwest corner. In the window stand a couple of suit dummies, and I often admire the selection of ties that they don. I noticed the woman, approach the folks waiting at the bus stop. The woman was asking people for whatever spare change they might have. She caught my attention not because I generally watch panhandlers in action, or because of what she was wearing or how she smelled. No, what struck me most about this particular woman was the fact that she was approaching only certain people-what was noticeable was that they were all of the Caucasian variety. Now, there were about a dozen of us at the stop, and all, save for three, were of the non-white array. A few weeks later, the same panhandler was on the same bus as I was. The crowd in the bus was, like on the corner earlier, a mix of races. She walked from the front of the bus to the back, asking again, only those who looked white if they could spare her some change. She ostentatiously passed by a score of Asians, Africans, and others, concentrating her campaign on the seemingly white passengers. First, I was glad that I wasn't asked, because I was trying to catch a wink or two before my stop. But as I noticed her working the bus, I was astonished. Was my money not good enough? Was I, because I don't look white a waste of time, because I probably couldn't speak English?
I have resolved not give money to panhandlers on the street. Not just because of the lady in question, no not just that. What got me a little perturbed was the fact, a few days earlier, downtown again, I was accosted by some seemingly homeless fellow, looking for exactly $3.00. With a tattered brochure in his hand, the three bucks was for a night's stay in a hostel as advertised on his ratty sheet. Despite having some change in my pocket-not adding up to three dollars, I assure you-I said I didn't have change, but I offered the little bottle of water that I had in my pocket (unopened and costing two overpriced dollars, courtesy the Orpheum Theatre's bar). The bum rebuffed my offer rather rudely, huffing that he was homeless and cold and didn't need water. His tone was egregious enough, that I actually waved my hand in an effort to dismiss him. He began spewing epithets not worth repeating here, calling me a liar. I nearly laughed. I've seen this son of a bitch before. He could very well be homeless and poor, but for chrissakes, what's offensive is that he would stipulate an exact amount, and second that he would contrive a bitchy little scene for me, and the others in hearing distance as to my credibility in accounting for the coinage I keep in my pocket. Such presumptuousness.
Another unfortunate example of no good going unpunished, took place a month or two ago, whereupon a hungry person was asking for change for food. I was the eighth of ten or so folks lined up at a bus stop that he solicited. All the others expectedly ignored him or told him curtly, no. I, on the other hand, ever being polite, said (and it was true this time), that I had no change. He then, amazingly enough, knowing about automatic teller machine cards, said the McDonalds up the road takes Debit cards and I could buy him something that way. Appalled, I did what the others did, and ignored him. Being snubbed was not enough of course. He began haranguing me about how buying him a two dollar burger would not make a difference to me the next day, or something assiduously attempting the profound.
More and more, and my own experience points to this, is that beggars are becoming choosers. An MLA in this city has gone so far as to introduce legislation to deal with over-the-top panhandlers and the sort. A way, one assumes-misguided though it may be-at attempting to curb vigorous beggars. Perhaps, I should be less inviting to strangers on the street-a sort of don't-speak-unless-spoken-to attitude I could wear. Don't tell me what I can or can't do, please. I was nice enough to engage in a little conversation, but no. Take a hint pal, and beat it.
Panhandling has been around for time in memoriam. Pols can legislate all they like, but the critical issue of poverty reigns rampant through society and will continue to fester. I haven't any solutions. But my gut tells me forking over whatever change I may have stored in my pocket will certainly not alleviate poverty even for that one person I bequeath.
I'll admit to having dropped some change to a passing beggar in the past, but no more. I've been bothered enough. I never before bought into that nonsense about panhandlers buying drugs or booze with the pittance they gather. However, after my less than inspiring experiences, perhaps it is apt. I've stopped giving as of late because being generous and being suckered in by bullshit is apparently synonymous. I'll give to charities of course, but just don't expect me to pony up whenever the next beggar shakes a cap in front of me, or sticks out a hand.
Panhandlers who harass, few though they may be, give the truly destitute and needy a bad rap. Because I've been bugged by a bum in the past, or harassed by a hobo once or twice, I'm offended and weary of being generous. This latest example of the woman who aims only whites is appalling. Perhaps it's a waste of time asking those who speak little or no English if they could spare change, when they probably wouldn't anyway, but it's a bit distressing to see that beggars can be choosers.
Further to the piece last month regarding Shaw's Urban Rush and their debut broadcast from their new studios at Coal Harbour, I am in receipt of e-mails from the said hosts, Fiona Forbes and Michael Eckford. Forbes writes to dispute the claim I had made that they were knocking back a few during the taping. "Neither Mike nor I drink and talk [on camera]! In my opinion a drunk TV host is a bad TV host!" writes Forbes. Who also points out that once the shooting was finished, the party had died down and they were without food or drink, "We didn't get one damn drink the whole night." They made up for it though, winding up at Bin 942, where they threw back a few until the wee hours. Eckford also chimes in, "I do drink and talk (and I'm sure I'm at my wittiest!), just not on the idiot box."
And finally, I received an e-mail from a reader regarding my use of the word 'croaked' when listing Yasser Arafat in my death list column at the end of the year. I was told it was disrespectful, and perhaps it was. I tend not to dwell on previous columns, letting them stand on their own. My reply to the charge I was disrespectful goes thusly: I find it difficult to be objective about Arafat and his legacy. Forget for a moment that he was a terrorist (which is hard to ignore to begin with), and just consider his accomplishments as a statesman. I would think it a bit of a stretch to think that he improved the lot of the Palestinian people a great deal, thus becoming the great statesman for his people that they and he envisioned him as. In terms of being disrespectful, I tend to think I was being kind in using 'croaked.'
One more thing, do read Marty Beckerman's fine interview with the author Stephen Chbosky. It's at: http://www.thecommentary.ca/archives/20050106.html on The Commentary's website, or on his own, martybeckerman.com
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