For a long time, I couldn’t get a handle on the panhandler issue. I almost never gave. At best, I ignored them. At worst, I bristled with annoyance. I tried to rationalize all this — and failed utterly. It wasn’t guilt so much, although that played a role. I simply didn’t like what it was doing to me. 

Hardening of the heart.

Then about two years ago, I attended a Unity Temple service highlighted by Henry Mollicone’s Beatitude Mass: For the Homeless. In a bit of covert theatrical trickery, the soloists, disguised as the homeless, were imbedded in the pews with the rest of the congregation. The soprano sat next to me. Unity takes a moment at the beginning of services to greet one another. Despite her downwardly mobile grunge look, I magnanimously extended my hand — but kept my distance. When the time came for the musical offering, she walked up front and started singing — like an angel. 

The point was driven home (so to speak): The homeless are people, entitled to dignity and respect. You never know what you’ll find beneath the initial impression.

It inspired an experiment. Every time I visited the Loop, I would give one panhandler one dollar. Totally inadequate as a response, of course, to the “problem” of poverty and homelessness, but I wasn’t looking for a solution — or to let myself off the proverbial hook. I just wanted to see if it would change my perspective. 

At first I kept a dollar bill in my shirt pocket because it felt awkward to stop, dig out my wallet, check for a single (God forbid I should discover only larger bills!), and hand it over. Choosing a panhandler to be the recipient of my “smallesse” bordered on random. I didn’t try to assess who was “worthy.” I never trusted my judgment on that, which was one of the reasons I rarely gave in the past.

Sometimes I liked their “act.” Every downtown panhandler has a different style, and knowing that I had to choose one made me pay closer attention. Some are funny, some are guilt-inducers, some are pathetic (i.e. arousing “pathos,” from which the words “sympathy” and “empathy” derive), some show little style or guile (which speaks to their authenticity). One guy kneels on the hard pavement with no padding, his hands pressed together prayerfully, for hours apparently. He has, as the rich like to say, “skin in the game” (though not in the way they mean it).

The point wasn’t to find a reason to give (legit or otherwise). The point was to practice giving and see what happened. 

What happened (unexpectedly) is that panhandlers stopped annoying me. Now I actually see them — as opposed to when they were merely unwanted intrusions in my peripheral vision. I enjoy the moment of eye contact and the exchange of words, however brief. Sometimes, though, I’m so self-absorbed or lost in thought, I forget about giving at all. That’s part of the experiment too. 

By almost any measure, I am not a wealthy man. I can’t afford to give a dollar to every panhandler in the Loop. Besides, that would be like running the gauntlet, though I’m not opposed to trying it one day for the sake of the experiment. Wealth, after all, is relative.

Gradually, my experiment has morphed into a practice — blessing the poor in some small fashion because, reportedly, theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and they may well be the gatekeepers. A dollar and an encouraging word or two is a small price for admission.

But I’m not trying to justify any of this. We live in an unjustifiable economic system, whose signature byproduct is extreme inequality. The only alternative to capitalism is socialism (or a blend of the two, which seems to work pretty well in Scandinavia) but Americans can’t abide the notion, even though we practice socialism every time we send our kids to public school, visit a national park, or borrow from a public library (Maybe we should call it “share-ism” instead).

The bottom line (so to speak) is we’re left to our own devices, navigating a heartless system as best we can. 

Last week, I visited the Art Institute to see the Rodin exhibit. As I started up the front steps, a panhandler, sounding like a polished Walmart greeter, said, “Welcome to the Art Institute. I’ll be here on your way out.” Definite points for style, but he wasn’t around when I left — which I realized later on the Green Line heading home as I heard the grating voice of a panhandler “working” our car. He irritated me, not because his pants were way low, which annoys the hell out of a lot of white people, or because of the pack of cigarettes peeking from his pocket, but because he was disturbing the unnatural silence of our ride (though why that should be annoying is a mystery). When he passed my seat, I saw how young he was. I didn’t give him anything but later regretted it.

That evening, I exited the Lake Theatre to the bellowing of a young woman almost demanding payment. I didn’t give to her either because I didn’t want to hear that voice ever again, at least not in Oak Park, but I realized I had struck out on panhandlers that day, 0-for-3. 

A few nights later, leaving the Cliff Dwellers Club at 10 p.m. after a concert by the same Unity Temple music director who conducted Mass for the Homeless during that service two years ago, I came upon a panhandler in front of Symphony Center who seemed indignant that no one was giving him anything. I stopped, dug out my wallet and hoped to God I had a single, which I did and gave it to him. 

It seemed to help. Who knows? 

The only thing I know for sure is that panhandlers are people — and, like all of us, they’re entitled to dignity and respect. 

Everyone can afford that much.

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