No stepping around the pedestrian tax


Cities are made for walking. There is no time to linger in a car. You have to walk the sidewalks, press the flesh, see the sights, and pay the tax -- the pedestrian tax.

You can't walk around downtown without running into someone looking for a handout. Each encounter forces a decision. Do you fumble through your purse or pocket for spare change, or do you ignore the six feet of humanity standing in front of you?

Either way you pay, a bit of coin or a bit of soul.

Three years ago, a City Council ordinance outlawed aggressive, in-your-face panhandling, making it easier to take a stroll without being harassed. Nowadays, the Downtown Partnership's troops help keep panhandlers in line.

But how much could you go through if you gave money to everyone who asked?

On a nice day, the pedestrian tax, measured in 50-cent installments, amounts to $3 an hour.

Start at Calvert and Lexington streets as noon approaches and head for the Inner Harbor. The crowds are thick, the panhandlers few. Make a right at Pratt Street, cross Light Street.

Decision One: The bearded, unkempt man with the orange sleeping bag looks to be in his 20s. There is a helpless shame in his voice, as if he cannot believe he is saying: "Change? Change?"

Decision Two: He is sitting on a concrete lip in front of the U.S. District Court. He cannot be ignored. The sidewalk is barely wide enough for two people, let alone a seated man holding forth a medium-sized Styrofoam cup.

He catches your gaze. "Sir?" he says. And, later, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." The coins fall like blessed rain into a thirsty man's cup.

He is the last panhandler for several blocks. Paca and Greene streets below Lexington Street are dead zones. Even the panhandlers know medical students are broke. The pedestrian mall between Park Avenue and Eutaw Street is better.

Decision Three: "Mister? Can you spare 50 cents?" She is an old woman with the face of a grandma. She moves through the milling shoppers like a pinball, bounding from one to another. "Can you spare 50 cents?"

Decision Four: The faint strains of "Amazing Grace" flow through the urban hubbub between Howard Street and Park Avenue. Ruth Carlson and Marlea Gutchess, soldiers from Grace and Hope Mission, play a duet on their B-flat trumpets. Their religious tracts are free. Donations are welcome.

Decision Five: Lexington and Charles streets, heading north. The Tax Man cometh. The cardboard square strapped across his chest is simple -- "Help The Homeless."

Decision Six: "Spare some change, brother." He is leaning on a fence near Charles Street and North Alley, behind the Basilica. His voice holds no rancor or hint of demand. It seems indifferent. But he, too, says "thank you" when the tax is paid.

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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