Won’t Work for Food – USA

In nearly every nation to which I have traveled, I have encountered a common denominator regardless of language, geography or economy: beggars. No doubt you have seen them too, in varying stages of misery. Even in the United States, where the streets are paved with gold, we have more than our share of beggars.

Upon my first real visit out of the U.S.A. to Ireland, I, like many Americans, had become so jaded to the idea of people begging that I paid very little attention to any of them sitting on street corners and in doorways. That was back in 1990, and most of the beggars on the streets consisted of Travelers (or Tinkers, as they are known locally), the traveling folk who set up their caravans in every lay-by on the highway. During the day the women would take their children into town with them and beg on the streets. Many locals tend to have some degree of contempt for these families, as the government provides the Travelers with several forms of assistance, yet they continue to live their nomadic life, seldom working, sometimes resorting to theft. Nonetheless, my hardened attitude would often melt a bit as I would walk down the streets with friends, for while I ignored the outstretched hands and pleas for help, my friends would frequently dig into their pockets to give them some change or pound notes. Sometimes, if we would pass six beggars on the streets, six times my friends would dig out their money. I would often tally up in my head how expensive it could get just to walk down the street!

But on more recent visits to Ireland, attitudes about begging have changed. Since the problems in Eastern Europe began growing more severe in the 1990’s, refugees have been “exported” to other countries. As a result, many Romanian families have been sent as refugees to other countries, including Ireland. The Romanian beggar women and children put on a far more impressive show than the Tinkers ever did. The Romanian families receive all sorts of provisions from the Irish government, the United Nations and the European Community including food, housing, clothing and a monthly stipend, yet their begging has brought about a huge change in Irish people’s attitudes toward beggars.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am all about assisting those down on their luck – I may be in that number someday. But not for those who receive all their living expenses from several international organizations. The picture of misery that is projected gives a nearly laughable caricature of beggars in general. A woman will seat herself in the middle of the sidewalk, not off on the periphery, so that passers-by must maneuver around her. Alongside her is a huge brood of children; many Irish will swear that they borrow their friends’ babies to enhance the image of poverty. This isn’t difficult to imagine, as a woman may have six or seven kids under two years old with her.

Further, I am convinced that these women bring bags of dirt with them and scatter it around to make themselves appear that they just crawled over from the continent on their hands and knees. For added flair, the various limbs of the attendant waifs will be wrapped in bandages. The women can be seen exhorting the kids to sit down and look wretched when they get bored and try to get up to play. And for the icing on the cake, instead of simply asking for alms or coins, the women scream and moan like banshees dying of cancer. It isn’t hard to see why many Irish have become rather hardened to beggars when they walk down the street to strains of “AAAAAAHHHHH! OOOOOOOHHHH!”

But Ireland certainly has no monopoly on beggars. Recently in Tijuana, Mexico I found myself harangued from all sides by beggar women and their children. The beggars there seemed mostly to be Indian women (feathers, not dots) wrapped in traditional-looking clothes. I thought the way they were dressed was interesting, especially when they carried their babies papoose-style on their backs. One woman had interesting features and a beautiful baby on her back. I raised my camera to take a photo, only to have her turn away so I couldn’t photograph either her or her baby. After lowering my camera, she put her hand out.

“OK, I see how it goes,” I said to myself. I was familiar with the tactic – clams for Kodaks. I reached out and offered her a dollar, a fair price I thought. But I was taken aback when she indicated no, she wanted two dollars! I thought that was a little greedy, especially when she was getting something basically for nothing. I said “No. One dollar or nothing.” But she held firm on her price. Indignant, I walked away. “I’m on a budget too, honey,” I thought. But I was happier a minute later when we happened upon a little beggar girl selling chicle (gum) down the street. She was a gorgeous little toddler and my wife raised her camera to snap a photo. Unlike the woman, she lowered her little box of gum and smiled sweetly. After the picture, she never indicated once that she expected any sort of compensation from us. Charmed by this little girl, I gave her the dollar that I would have given to Cruella De Vil earlier. Still, the little girl insisted on giving us each a little pack of gum.

I found myself wondering what becomes of beggars after they disappear from public view. Where do they go? Do they have a house? Do they have husbands? I wondered about courtship rituals among beggars. Does a guy say to himself “Say! Check out that hot little beggar mama! How can I get a date with her?” Where would they go on a date? What would they talk about? Cheap Americans who wouldn’t meet their price for photos?

That train of thought led me to an interesting realization. In every country, the beggars have all been women and children, except in the United States. In America, it’s always men. Of course in places like Italy and France, you may be asked for spare change by the infrequent male, but you get the distinct impression that he just needs the money for a cappuccino or something. But that’s about it for male beggars everywhere else. And in the States, the most common form of beggar is the guy at the intersection with the cardboard sign.

I suppose this is to give written documentation of their plight, rather than leave their state of misery to the imagination, illustrated only by dirty children and punctuated by howls of “AAAHHHHOOOOHHHH!” The signs themselves are a fascinating blend of journalism, history and art. Seldom do you see the trite “Will work for food” or “Homeless and hungry” signs any more. Now it seems that the signmen are going for greater detail in an effort to evoke sympathy. On a corner I pass quite frequently I’ve seen a man with a misspelled sign that says

“Stranded travler –
need food – cash”

This fellow has been on this corner for at least a year and a half. It strikes me as odd that this “traveler” hasn’t hitched a lift or even hoofed it on to his ultimate destination. Surely if he’s really traveling, there must be something better for him somewhere else.

Another sign I saw seemed to go for the shotgun effect to hit on a sympathetic nerve. It read:

“American veteran

and then in smaller print at the bottom, like an afterthought:

“will work”

I was impressed by the many levels this soul was hitting. Let’s see, he’s got patriotism, humanitarianism, and even Democrat and Republican camps all represented by his simple sign.

One cardboard signman that stand out in my mind is a fellow whose cardboard display had the intriguing legend:


It made me sit and think for a minute about its meaning. The author was certainly an efficient wordmiser. It was breathtaking how much specificity was conveyed by these three words in such unlikely combination. Vision juicy cheeseburger. It left no doubt as to what this bloke’s vision was. The driver of the car in front of me reached out and handed him some cash. The signman took the cash and with very exaggerated movements lifted his hands and eyes heavenward. I wondered what his silent prayer was. “Thank you lord for this cash to fulfill my vision!” Or perhaps it was along the lines of “What’s this? I wanted a cheeseburger!”

Call me a cynic or tightwad or just plain mean, but there’s only been one time in this country that I ever gave any money to a cardboard sign person. It was a girl actually, a rarity in this country. She sat at an intersection in unshabby clothes and held her well-printed sign. It read:

“Not Hungry.
Not Homeless.
Just need some cash for the weekend.”

I rolled down my window and gave her five dollars.

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