Calling a Beggar’s Bluff

Until age 18, I doubt I’d ever had to deal with a beggar. Prior to heading to Austin for higher learning, my exposure to ‘street people’ was most surely limited to seeing one or two from the family truckster while my dad searched for shortcuts to concerts and sporting events in downtown Dallas. Austin is a fine city for the begging homeless, it’s warm, tolerant of many kinds of folks, at least by Texas’ standards, and the campus is overflowing with middle-class kids carrying pocket money who I imagine would rather part with a buck than risk the possibly unruly confrontation a stern ‘no’ might illicit. At least that was the case with me.

I’d been dutifully informed by a now nameless friend or family member about the sinister tricks a homeless person might pull – like using a razor blade to slit the same wrist holding that quarter, so they could rob you while you stood there bleeding. Still, my own ability to say anything other than “sure” when asked for ‘help, assistance, or cash’ was poor at best. I possessed a combination of truly wanting to help, mixed with a healthy fear of the retaliation any other answer would bring down on me. But even after The Great Coffee Incident of ’91 left me weary of helping anyone down-and-out again, I found myself still peeling off dollar bills to any stranger who asked when I moved to New York. And if memory serves, in the first month or so of my residency there I only had about two-hundred in total to live-on before a tail-tucking retreat to my childhood bedroom on Mesquite Court East would become my final option.

The stories told by those-in-need in New York put the Austin based chapter to shame. Fantastic tales involving prison time, cross-country bus rides to see long-lost children, and bold claims suggesting that just one quarter was all that was left between where they stood and the return to a better life. About the only time I wouldn’t hand over that magical quarter was when the desperate soul asking for it had been the 2nd or 3rd to ask in the last hour. Over time, you hear the same stories, often from the same people, for years and years. Somewhere in my early twenties I watched a 60 Minutes or 20/20 exposé on a few NYC beggars, and learned that one or two of them were pulling in six-figures a year. I wasn’t shocked by the news, by then I had surmised begging for dollars must be a decent living – otherwise why would the same folks tell the same story, over and over and over on the B/D line I rode during my first three years there.

Hardened by time, experiences, that exposé, and the special brand of cynicism city living breeds – my ability to ignore and even defy a beggar’s request with a stern “no” became as easy as breathing. The stories they profess in search of that transformational coin haven’t changed much, and why would they? They’ve focus-grouped that story to death, they’ve honed it to work hard for them, to work quickly, banking on the tourists and newbies to help them out one more time – certain the fear of retaliation those people posses will always result in their buckling and as such another few bucks, if not hundreds of bucks, a day for the them.

My own fear of being bludgeoned for refusing to hand over yet another magical quarter hasn’t left me completely, but I find myself pushing the beggars I encounter to answer more and more questions about their narrative. The devil is in those details, and if their answers to my queries are creatively sound, I tend to reach into my pockets to reward their craftsmanship with greater frequency. A good story is always worth a buck, and part of me still believes that maybe one or two of those souls seeking that life-changing-coin are on the up-and-up. The scarier looking of their kind probably get more bucks for their banging, because let’s face it – I’m only willing to push a beggar’s bluff so far, especially when he or she carries a deadly-twinkle in their eyes.

Still, I’ve never had a knock on the door, phone call, or email from any of them to let me know how wonderfully things went, post my contribution. With any luck one of them is reading this post via the computer and Internet my metallic and green hoped helped them obtain. Or, maybe they are reading this on the iPhone they just yanked off a kid whose wrists they cut open after that rube handed them a quarter, palm up. I’m open to hearing from him or her either way.

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