PENNY SKILLMAN is a San Francisco author and freelance writer whose work has appeared in diverse publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Oakland Tribune, and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. She’s the author of The Cats’ Journal, which was excerpted for a reading on Pacifica Public Radios, and short stories and poetry which have appeared in literary journals, such as Owen Wister Review, Equinox, Pen Online In Our Words, and the California Poetry Quarterly. She is currently at work on a collection of novellas entitled, One Olive Park Circle, and a collection of Haiku-inspired poetry tentatively titled, Hagiwara In Golden Gate Park.
THE PANHANDLING LIFESTYLE
“No Kindness, No Matter How Small, Is Ever Wasted.” This was a Sixties saying, And I believe it to be true. But when it concerns street begging, I’m beginning to wonder if giving money to people who sit on the sidewalks with a cup for donations is now such a popular event that panhandling has become an accepted lifestyle, a first, main, only job. Still no retirement pensions, but many of us don’t have those benefits now either. Why do I see overweight beggars smoking six dollar a pack cigarettes. Am I supporting “bad” behavior when I give money to a sidewalk beggar? I’ve never believed that working by itself made a person sane or moral or decent, but it does give you control over areas of existence that you don’t have otherwise. In other words, it allows you to set priorities in more areas of your life than just eating and sleeping. And that strikes me as a good thing. A wonderful thing, in fact.
The street panhandler who begs as a lifestyle choice is taking up space and incoming money that a truly mendicant person might be getting. By giving our money, as a community we’re making a space outside on the sidewalks for someone to display wares to would-be donators. Nowadays, for a whole class of non-starving, non-working people, begging has become a viable lifestyle. In common with addicts, lifestyle panhandlers have a familiar core resistance to change, while often there is talk of change. In other words, the fantasy of changing has become part of the act. But what is panhandling about?
Whenever I interact with Molly, who for years has sat on the same block and begged with a paper cup, wears nicely coordinated clothing, and is clean and bright, I ponder the possibility that this voluntary panhandling is a more generalized, vaguer form of prostitution, which in order to fulfill the supply-demand angle, requires the purveyor of the product to cling to various stories of victimhood in order that the giver feels they’re going to be instrumental or even pivotal in getting this person off the street. The “homeless” person (in Molly’s case, she was given a room by the city, and was never really homeless) sells an emotional tidbit, but is constrained to always appear helpless and victimized, yet simultaneously trying to escape beggardom. She has, it seems to me, given up the victimhood of showing up at a certain time each day at a job, for a self-imposed victimhood. But her coping mechanism is single-note. She’s shown me pictures of her son and daughter, and she’s obviously proud of them. But I’m fairly certain the first time they placed the slightest demand on her emotions, she’d bolt. There’s no point at which she can accept responsibility in even the most nuanced form. Once or twice I’ve invited her to join me in a coffee house, and it was too much for her to sit face-to-face with another person. She’s determined to remain in a state of total dependency, and it requires all her efforts to keep the world from imposing, yet interact with the world just enough to ensure survival. Molly lets her donators believe they’ll be helping her in her salvation. “With the help of the people on this street, I’m going to get off the street,” she told me once. She’s also at times told me she likes to paint houses, that she’s going to make watercolor postcards to sell on the street, that she’s saved people on the street in the Tenderloin from overdosing, and that she helps out the police because she knows what’s going on in the streets.
For the first two years I thought maybe some very small part of this might be true; I’ve seen her primarily as an actress, but not necessarily a good one. Her mode of panhandling explains why she’s resisted getting her missing front teeth fixed–while she may have a set of uppers back in her room, it adds to her authenticity as a homeless person to be missing her front teeth. This craft of creating illusion is also central to the power a prostitute strives for in his/her work. Yet sometimes I see Molly as simply a modern-day female holy person, like one of those wandering Buddhist beggars. One of the reasons people still give her money despite years of seeing her out on the sidewalk is that she looks as if she’s only there temporarily; with a bit of imagination it’s possible to see her reintegrating into society in some capacity other than begging. She told me a year or so ago that her successful sister from Nevada came to visit and disgustedly asked her, “But, how do you fill your day?” I told Molly I thought that was a very intelligent question, one we ought all ask ourselves frequently.
What does it mean that modern-day America has spawned this new “industry,” in which the worker is a cross between an old-fashioned illusionist and talking-entertainer who produces “feel-good” moments for the paying customer, while failing, or simply refusing, to produce a work product that is perceived as adding to the common good? Isn’t this a reason our society looks askance at prostitution? I think in one sense the new voluntary panhandling lifestyle is a radical development and it threatens our old-fashioned notions of work, where mental or physical effort is exchanged for a product or service in a process that our values have deemed productive. It is, in a way, a job attuned to our present everything-the-easy-way, fast-food culture, but one in which the work product has morphed into a momentary psychic satisfaction for the giver–“I have helped a fellow in need,” even though that need may be illusionary–and for the taker a psychic satisfaction of yet another effective performance, as in, “I have got my craft down.” Perhaps real products, but elusive, more on a religio-psychotherapeutic scale, and hard to keep track of, regulate, or quantify. And perhaps having a social use in keeping these same people out of institutions that we taxpayers support. Maybe the voluntary beggar’s work is closer in nature to the magician’s act of olden days, or the stripped down pleasures of the opium den, where nothing appears to be happening at all, yet the seller and buyer feel a satisfaction nonetheless. And it seems to me that the more lucid the beggar’s presentation appears to the intended audience, the more successful it may be; in that respect it may rein in the mentally ill homeless enough to at least pay attention to the rational world so as to ascertain and get at its sympathetic heartstrings.
Once on Market Street I came across a forlorn woman sitting on one of the concrete planters, hands clasped and head down, bags of tatty belonging nearby, and an orange crayon sign propped up in front. It said, Another Day In Paradise. I gave paper because I saw her as putting on a minimalist play in one-eighth of an act. Irony is the mother of art, isn’t it? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but it evoked a definite response. Likewise the sign of the panhandler I saw raking in money on the Van Ness median the day after Frank Sinatra died: I Did It My Way. If someone can make you smile, they are indeed entertaining, and it can be argued that this is a form of productive work. But the spins on panhandling evolve, sometimes into forms I’m uncomfortable with. A year ago I saw a young woman with two young children on Market Street begging. She also had a cat. I’m torn whenever I see kids or cats, disturbed about what it says about our affluent society and its Judeo-Christian ethos. I don’t give to beggars who keep cats on the curb any longer. I stopped once to talk with a man on Market Street who had two plump cats sitting on pillows.
“Where’d you get those gorgeous cats?” I inquired.
“I rescued them on the side of a highway in Texas,” he said, and described how he’d saved and rehabbed the cats. I gave him more than any amount I’ve given before or since, because I thought he was doing productive social work, though on a small scale. Plus, I’m a cat nut. Months later I came across the same well-cared for cats, with a new panhandler.
“Where’d you get those beautiful cats?” I ventured.
The man looked thoughtfully at me over his glasses.
“I rescued them on the side of a highway in Texas...” he said, continuing with the story I’d heard six months previous. I gave him fifty cents. Every single story in the city has its shelf life, doesn’t it? And the cats were well-cared for. More recently I’ve come across a woman on the south side of Market near Fourth. She sits crocheting with a sign next to her, which reads: I Have Four Kids To Feed, And I’m Pregnant. I found myself about to drop coins into the cup, then the thought popped up. Whoa! What’s wrong with this picture? Is this the newest panhandling morality? If you, stranger, refuse to help me feed this first four, I’m going to make you starve another one?
The amount of goods or money taken in is the gauge of the illusionist’s success, as it is in any profession. The product and work shift length and location have been removed from society’s regulation, or approved purposes, except for the ultimate spending of the money earned. Is the money a product of labor? Is voluntary begging theater? Is it a form of religious ritual in which the priest/priestess addresses the flock one-on-one for a few minutes in a publicly located confessional with a mobile work kit, including a donation box, on-site?
Is it possible that each quarter or dollar we give to a street person is encouraging at least some teenagers, veterans, housewives–and now mothers–to take themselves and baby, toddlers, dog, cat, or other “zoo-creating” dependent or prop, out to the urban sidewalk and set up a space with a cup and sign and claim it as their personal work space? Maybe we’re harming our greater society by enabling a dependent and passive compulsion, and not helping the individual panhandler either. We all know that young people can occasionally lack common sense; sometimes they have an undeveloped sense of right and wrong, and no practical skills, including not all that great an ability to entertain. And begging, it’s obvious, can become an addiction; it is a dependent behavior. There are very few skills to be honed out there, except those connected with manipulating strangers to give up money, and if you can’t dance, sing, or play an instrument, as the beggars of days past, there are only two basic stances - pathetic victim of life, or friendly down-and-outer trying to get a foothold.
What Molly knows is that it’s better to be friendly, say hi! to passing kids and adults, fix your appearance so it looks as if you’re trying, and merely temporarily out of a job. This for her, it seems, takes the place of responsibilities in general. For her and other chronic voluntary beggars this behavior doesn’t afford long-term self-esteem, it strips a person’s confidence in getting or keeping a job, and it erodes all self-discipline because it allows subsistence existence which makes it possible to postpone any other form of self-reliance.
Giving people money on the street may prevent them from taking charge of their existence, their emotions, any capacity to set goals, or make even low level exchanges with other people on an even basis, as an adult. Worst of all, I think, street begging encourages lying, of which we have already far too much in our lives, both as a society and in our personal relationships. Telling falsehoods is an addictive behavior, much more dangerously addictive than most people are aware, and in its serious form, constant unrepentant lying that is never set straight and has no immediate white-lie purpose, is a hideous form of abuse.
In San Francisco, of all places, with its tolerant populace, and a Mediterranean climate that accommodates an urban camper, and few social demands or desires to dampen personal freedom, it may be a mistake to go on giving out medical help that is more dependable than what we going-to-work folks can get, or housing that’s better and newer than we can afford when we’re working a job. Molly was given a room by the city. Cash is available to those who have a story and can sit on the sidewalk with a paper cup. There’s something in the process that turns society on its head. Especially so when services, food and physical and mental health treatment have become so expensive. How do we want young people in the city to observe and understand our values and beliefs about what’s expected of them in order to be acceptable adults, even functional? If you make a living begging, and you don’t need mental health services in an obvious way, does it mean begging for a living is an honorable goal?
Even by middle school, kids pick up on attitudes, mores and values, and what they mean for others and for themselves. Later, in high school, it’s what skills do I need to make it in the world? What’s possible? Do we want children to learn sitting on a sidewalk is an option – along with telling lies and manipulating the system into taking care of them? And, more practically, it becomes a matter of numbers. There are only so many farming spaces on our sidewalks, only so many givers are able or willing to buy the product, only for so much time is it profitable at each location. And for at least some people who have been addicted – whether it’s an addiction to booze, pharmaceuticals, gambling, cigarettes, rage, emotional dependencies such as “romance,” or sex, or panhandling – it can take years of struggle, using up enormous amounts of community and family resources, when an addict decides to try to get straight again. Every addict who’s been successful at recovery will attest to the battle to stuff the genie back into the bottle. It can damn near kill those trying to pull out of the morass of addiction. Preciouse years are lost in unlearning non-functional behaviors. If you sit on a sidewalk long enough, sleeping there is natural after a while, the same with eating out of garbage cans. The priorities diminish to one or two. Alternatives dissipate and hostility grows in direct proportion to it.
I’ve been a giver of spare change and occasionally bills, but I’ve come to believe it’s better to only give food to panhandlers, generally speaking. I see too many people on the streets and in the Park, and there’s simply not enough room out there, or surplus spare change, as the fat on the land is disappearing at an increasingly faster pace nowadays.