No easy answers for walking by an outstretched hand


NEW YORK -- The guy is following me through Penn Station and he is not playing by the rules. "Come on, man," he keeps saying. "A buck, a lousy buck."

The rules state that once you have refused to make eye contact with a panhandler, he is supposed to leave you alone and move on to the next person. But this guy keeps following me and wailing.

I quicken my pace and finally lose him amid the general chaos of the station.

Penn Station is a place I look forward to about as much as arthritis. It is always in some state of being built up or torn down; I can never tell which.

Construction barriers are everywhere, weird garbled messages boom through the loudspeakers, people wander aimlessly, helplessly looking for trains to take them away from all this.

I had not been to New York for a while and a friend there told me two things would be different: the taxis and the panhandlers.

The taxis I notice immediately. Even though it is raining, there are plenty of them. My driver speaks English, takes the shortest route and when I give him the extravagant tip I always give cabbies in New York (hey, these guys could have razors), he gives me an extravagant thank you.

My friend explains it to me later. "It's the recession," he says. "Everybody in New York is driving a cab these days."

This could not be the literal truth. I don't suppose many ex-stockbrokers, ex-real estate tycoons and ex-merchant bankers are out driving cabs. But, then again, maybe they are. My cabdriver did have the remains of an awfully nice haircut.

My friend was also correct about the panhandlers, only he called them beggars.

You can't call them beggars anymore, I tell him.

"That's what they are," he says. "Beggars and bums."

You can't say bums, either, I say. We used to have beggars and bums and hobos and tramps. Not anymore. Today we have jobless people. And homeless people. No bums.

The old liberal line on homeless people is that we needed to build decent housing for every one of them. The new liberal line on homeless people is that the problem is not about housing, it is about mental health, and that many of these people would not live in a home if you built one for them. Translation: Don't raise my taxes to build decent housing for everyone.

Anyway, you can't say bums, I tell my friend. Panhandler sounds better.

"Call them anything you want," my friend says, "I don't give them anything."

Not ever?

"Never," he says, "because how can you do it for some and not others? How do you decide? How ragged they look? How deserving they look? What kind of stories they tell?"

It's tough, I admit. Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune just finished writing about a guy panhandling people on the poshest streets of the city. The guy is a burn victim and he carries a sign saying: "Need money for reconstructive surgery."

"The guy is incredibly burned," Greene told me. "He looks like he just walked out of a stove. You look at him and you want to cry. His hair is burned off; his fingers are burned off. It is unbelievable."

People kept calling Greene and complaining that in a country as rich as America, nobody should have to beg on the street to get reconstructive surgery.

Greene went out and found the guy and talked to him. The guy was very evasive, but Greene tracked down the hospital that had treated the guy and it turns out the hospital had given him eight operations for free and wants to do more operations for free, but the guy will not come back.

Instead, the guy stands on the street with a sign and a bucket and people come up and pour money into it. "He's got to be making about $50,000 a year," Greene said. "I'm not saying he's a fake: He's really burned. But the hospital is willing to pick him up and take him there and do the operation and whatever it takes. But he won't cooperate."

Greene also noticed that another guy keeps hanging around the burned man and so maybe he is being exploited. Nobody knows.

So what do you do? Do you give the guy money figuring his terrible burns have screwed up his head so badly that he needs money no matter what the facts are?

Or do you not give him money because you figure he is part of a scam?

Or do you just put your head down and keep walking because that is what most of us do anyway?

That is certainly what I do in Penn Station. And the recession has changed things. The panhandlers are more aggressive, more clever, more plaintive.

At the steps of the station there is a guy in a wheelchair. He may have no legs; I didn't want to look. "Vietnam vet, Vietnam vet," he says over and over again all day long. "Hey, come on, help a Vietnam vet."

Maybe he is a vet; maybe he is not. I don't know. Most people pass by. Some give him money. I passed by.

Inside, in the waiting area, a neatly dressed woman in a white blouse and dark skirt makes her pitch in a loud, confident voice. "I need a dollar to buy a train ticket," she says. "Can anyone help? Will anyone please help me?"

I want to tell her that her voice is a little too loud and assertive, her delivery a little too practiced to make this seem real. But instead I just don't meet her gaze.

On the train, on the Metroliner that will take me home, another woman boards. "I have lost all my money, and I can't get home to Philadelphia, and I really need help," she announces. "Can any of you help me?"

This is a new one. How does she get down to the trains? Amtrak has people checking tickets before you can get to the trains. But here she is. And I guess she must get off before the train leaves in order to try her pitch on the next train.

In the train car, the passengers look at each other. We don't know what to do. Nobody believes her. But then, again, maybe it is true. Maybe she, like anybody, could be in trouble and afraid and in need of help in a big city.

If one of us gives to her, we all will give to her.

Nobody moves. We give her nothing. She looks at us and then moves on to the next car.

We have made our decision. If we had given her money, we would have risked feeling like fools. But by giving her nothing, we don't have to feel anything at all.

And that's just a whole lot easier.

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