September 5, 2013

September 5, 2013

The Science of Panhandling

As a woman of means employed in a big city, I encounter my fair share of homeless people.

(Does the phrase “woman of means” come off a little Golden Girl? If so, I heartily embrace that.)

(Note that I said “homeless people” and not “hobos.” The sentence that ends with “I encounter my fair share of hobos” begins with “As a woman of means crossing this great country by rail in the year of our Lord 1937.”)

It’s not necessarily that there are so many more homeless people here than in Wisconsin; I think it may be that in Wisconsin everyone drives everywhere. It’s a little harder to read a sign detailing your troubles when I’m whizzing past it at 70 miles per hour. On foot? Much easier. And by the way, that sign tells quite a story. Like, Quite a Story. And if I may, a suggestion: A homeless person’s sign, like a resume or a rap sheet, should be no longer than one page. Try, but not TOO hard. Boil your message down to two or three key points, one of which will ideally be something zen. Sun Tzu, maybe. Or the Buddha.

Also consider looking the part. One guy near my office gets into position each morning by setting up his cup, positioning his sign, and removing his shoes. It’s one thing to see a guy sitting forlornly on the sidewalk but a guy WITHOUT SHOES? Egad.

(Right? I have a heart of stone, but I feel like shoeless is way way worse than, um, shoed.)

(If you grew up in a part of the country where “shoeless” is a way of life, I urge you to review our nation’s per capita income distribution and then re-consider the value of footwear.)

There was a woman I may have mentioned before here—and certainly mentioned on Twitter—who used to sit a couple blocks from my office. She was pleasant, she was well-dressed, and I sometimes saw her getting into a black SUV. I don’t know whether she was living on the streets or performing a massive sociology experiment, but I feel like the cognitive dissonance reduced her take.

And let’s talk props. If your sign mentions kids, maybe have a kid around. It doesn’t have to be an actual kid; no one’s going to ask to hold your baby. Get a fake baby. (I guess you consider getting a real baby, but that’s difficult and possibly illegal.) Get a dog. Get a monkey that does tricks. Get a stuffed monkey and pretend it does tricks. Anything that adds to the “Do you SEE what I’ve been reduced to?” vibe.

And finally, before I’ve completely offended all advocates for and members of the homeless community (too late!), in the words of Mamet: Always be closing. It seems to me that homeless people are typically opening. “Do you have any spare change?” “Can I borrow a cigarette?” “How are you doing today?” All great opening lines. But “Thank you and God bless you” has the dual impact of guilting me into reciprocating and convincing me that you’re but a stray soul in search of Christian kindness. See what you did there?

It’s time to put the “profit” back in “profligate.”

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