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Monday, August 11, 2014
Personal Reflections ... Society ...

I was walking thru Newark on the way to the Broad St. train station after work the other day. I usually drive to work, but when the weather is nice I occasionally take the train even though it involves a one-mile walk each way. Just as I reached the stairway going up to the station platform, I could see someone about a block away, someone that I instantly recognized. No, it wasn’t anyone I knew. But I knew the type — an “odd street person”. Something a bit disheveled about this person, walking with an odd gait, hair disheveled, clothes a little funny, perhaps wearing a jacket or a thick sweater on a hot August afternoon. Usually these people are harmless, although once in a while they can make things very unpleasant when they suffer from mental dysfunctions and aren’t being properly treated. Interestingly, the person that I saw was not the only odd person I would encounter that day. More on that in a moment.

“Odd street people” aren’t always subject to a formal mental health diagnosis. Many indeed are, but some are just . . . well, just odd. You might call them “misfits”. People who just never made it, never held good jobs, never married or otherwise had stable relationships. Maybe their bodies were always a bit funny or slightly misformed. Maybe they were from broken homes, weren’t socialized all that well, and dropped out of school — but weren’t strong enough to enter the world of crime. Each one probably has her or his own story.

I’ve seen a lot of them over the years. When I was younger I was quite a railroad buff, and before I got my drivers license and use of an auto, I had to depend on buses, trains and walking to visit interesting railroad places (train yards, junction points, switch towers, old stations, etc.). Often these places were in less-than-desirable neighborhoods, or required me to utilize bus or train stations in run-down urban areas. So, I’ve seen and variously interacted with urban people for quite a large chunk of my life.

As I said, “odd people” are usually not a threat, as they usually won’t try to rob or assault you. That is a whole other type of person to watch out for; but you can’t entirely let down your guard, the city is full of surprises — some “oddies” might use aggression on you. The odd also aren’t necessarily homeless, alcoholic drunks, or substance abusers . . . but again, there is some overlap.

“Odd people” aren’t always panhandlers either . . . but in my experience, there does appear to be significant correlation between oddness and begging. Some odd people leave you alone (or even try to stay away from you), some just want to talk (coherently or incoherently) . . . and by contrast, many panhandlers don’t seem all that odd . . . but very often, the odd person you see on the street will approach you to request a donation.

In fact, on the day that I referred to above, I got to the train station and had about 8 minutes to wait for my train. It was a lovely sunny day, so I found a nice uncrowded spot to stand and just enjoy the scene. Suddenly, a fellow came up from behind me and stopped. Of course, the urban survival neurons in my brain kicked in instantly. THREAT EVALUATION MODE flashes in red letters. In a half second or so, I had my eyes on this person and my brain was assessing the circumstances. If it seemed bad, my heart would start to race and muscles tense and my lungs would expand even before I fully realized exactly what the threat was.

But this didn’t happen. The stranger was standing there looking at me, just starting to talk, but he didn’t seem all that bad. Maybe my pulse went up by 10 BPM, but not really to “red alert”. The plan of action was to just ride it out, listen to the guy, look at him obliquely and non-threateningly, see what he wants — probably money, of course. So he started off pleasantly enough, but soon got to the point. He wondered if I had a quarter that I could give him. Hmm, OK, just a quarter. Not very demanding. This fellow seemed “just odd enough”, just a bit “non-fashionable” (his hair was . . . odd), but not threateningly so. I nodded OK, reached into my pocket, and saw that he was keeping his place very politely. Finally I pulled out some spare change at the bottom of my pocket, maybe 60 or 70 cents, and handed it over.

As I did so, he said “don’t forget that the birds and squirrels are our best friends”, then invoked some divine blessings for me and resumed his walk towards the stairway down to the street. My subconscious was saying “OK, reasonable enough, he wasn’t aggressive and he did express his thanks and even offered a bit of wisdom, from his own perspective anyway”. As he was leaving, I said “hang in there”.

Why did I offer this guy what I felt to be a bit of encouragement about facing life’s challenges? For the most part, I act like any other suburbanite facing an odd urban person — a bit disengaged emotionally, just wanting to get this unexpected intruder away as quickly as possible. But a part of me knows that perhaps I’m myself not all that different (at least relative to one of the “nicer” odd person / panhandlers, like this fellow). I myself am “a bit different”. I myself have a body that isn’t terribly fashionable.

I had a nice jacket, shirt, tie, slacks and business shoes on at the time, but underneath it all, there’s something about me that finds it hard to settle down with other people or groups. I was married for a spell about 30 years ago, but after that I could never find “the right person” to do it again with. I don’t have a big retinue of friends; other than my brother, I really don’t have anyone to go out and share dinner or get a drink with. I’m kind of the odd-man out at work and with my Zen meditation group. Both places appreciate me and the contributions I make; but I never got into the in-crowd in either situation. I’m something of a friendly mis-fit, perhaps not all that different from the squirrel-loving panhandler I encountered at Broad Street. So, I was quite sincere in offering him some encouragement in facing the challenges of being “a bit odd”.

The sensei-teacher at my zendo recently talked about panhandlers in one of his lectures. He made the point that although many well-off people are willing to leave a dollar or two with someone requesting money, most look upon such people with a mixture of fear and mild disgust. Sensei told a story of a well-off suburban woman who made a “street retreat” as to experience sleeping in a homeless shelter. During the exercise (directed by none other than the redoubtable Zen impresario Bernie Glassman), she was told to panhandle some money. And she never forgot the look of disgust and the cold wall put up by even those who handed her a dollar.

Let me admit — I’ve put up cold walls myself with many panhandlers. As I said, not all panhandlers are “odd people” — some are a bit more threatening, especially the healthy young men who sometimes do this. Others are more relaxing, just old or plausibly down on their luck, especially the urban women who talk about running short for the month and needing money for diapers. Interestingly, the vehicle of choice for panhandling in Newark has become the wheelchair. For a while last year, a lot of men, young and old, took to wheelchairs and stationed themselves in the road at busy traffic lights. This is actually quite dangerous, and I believe that the cops cracked down on it (although I did see a rather healthy young man with both legs intact sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of a busy intersection the other morning — I managed to get the green light and drive past him, swerving a bit as not to hit him).

But in my old age, I’m trying to be a little less negative with most panhandlers, and at least offer a bland “OK, take care” after being relieved of a dollar. Once in a blue moon, as with the odd bird-and-squirrel man at the Broad Street platform, I might even feel a twinge of sympathy. But once again — I’m not claiming to be a Saint Francis. There are panhandlers, even relatively odd panhandlers, who I just don’t want to help.

On one of my driving routes out of Newark in the evening, a grizzly-looking white guy in his 50s or so often shows up at a busy intersection on a narrow street, and he “walks the line” looking for a hand-out. I have refused thus far. I’m not sure if I could justify my negativity towards him; arguably, if he has enough strength and smarts to do this, he could clean litter baskets at a fast food restaurant for $8 an hour. Perhaps that’s just not as pleasant as running an outdoor “small business venture” at an intersection, but my job isn’t a bowl of cherries either. Still, ultimately — I just don’t like this fellow. He’s odd but not in the “right way”, not to my tastes in oddness. Perhaps he reminds me of something about myself that I don’t like.

And then there are the “fellowship” situations where you find yourself standing close to other respectable working citizens, perhaps at a bus stop or in a subway car. A panhandler comes along and “works the line” asking each person individually for a hand-out. Often an unspoken agreement instantly emerges amidst those on the line. No one has said a word, but you know exactly what the agreement is. I.e., “everyone ignore this person. If we stand together, no one is going to lose a nickle”.

Let me admit, I always comply with these unspoken group agreements, even when the panhandler seems nonthreatening and “worthy”. I would feel as though I let the others down if I broke ranks and pulled out some change. Going back to my squirrel-friend at Broad Street, he found me in a good spot, as I was about 10 feet or more from the nearest fellow commuter. Had I been standing with people around me, I might have ignored him or just shaken my head. And even when someone occasionally “betrays the group” and gives something, they usually do so with a look of quiet disgust, as if to say to the panhandler “just take it and go quickly, maybe no one will notice”. And also to say to the group “I’m still trying to discourage this”. Humane recognition for the odd and the downtrodden won’t come easily from a group of fellow better-off travelers, even though my sensei advises it.

So, street interactions in the poorer neighborhoods are often psychologically complex. And they can reflect one’s own psychological complexities, contradictions and limitations. Even though I myself am something of an “odd person”, I don’t always provide other “oddies” with the basic human respect that they may or may not deserve, but should be still given as just to keep the notion of civilization alive. We all have our “shadows“, we all need to work on our subconscious dark sides. Perhaps urban panhandlers are even better at helping with shadow-work than all the LCSW and PhD therapists in the suburban neighborhoods where we, the panhandling targets, reside. (And they don’t charge as much!)

PS – what ever happened to Odd Fellows? This is some kind of fraternal society something like the Lions or Masons, that is rooted in 15th Century English history. It still exists, with a handful of chapters active in the USA today. But these “Odd Fellows” are probably not “odd” in the sense that I’m talking about. Would be interesting if there really was a fraternal organization for truly odd people!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:27 am      

  1. Jim, I remember reading, not too long ago, an autobiography of a very rich woman. The book opened with this sentence (I may paraphrase as I don’t have the book handy; so “quotes” are purely symbolic); the first sentence: “I looked out the window of the limousine I was riding in and saw a homeless woman digging through a dumpster. It was my mother. I chose not to stop and not to even say hello as I had long ago and many times tried to help her get off the streets. She always chose to go back; she seemed to like living that way.” The sentences were shocking. (Again, I emphasize I am not quoting directly but paraphrasing the concept of the idea the author wanted to get across.)

    But then there also was the time I was driving to the train to work; and I myself looked out the car window and saw a very close relative of ours digging through the garbage put out by others on “garbage day”. Another shock: This time one that really hit me in the guts. Again, over the years I have learned: This person has made her choice and will not change in any way. She seems to prefer to live that way.

    In the years I worked in downtown Chicago everyday (and here I admit that things have changed in the 2 decades since I’ve retired), panhandlers were similar to what you mention in this post. One almost never spoke to them; one almost never gave anything to them; one avoided them. I remember the young man I saw sitting, perhaps playing drums or a guitar, some kind of instrument. At his feet he had a can for money with the words that made me almost laugh; they said something like: “Contributions for an independent scholarship.” I couldn’t help but think, an “independent scholarship” I’m sure!

    I can agree 100% with you that the guy walking up and down between cars should not be given money as inevitably it will become a habit. If one gives him money, he will expect to be given money each day, and perhaps expect a “raise” as time goes on. Not a smart move to give him money.

    As to waiting on the platform for the train: I would not stand alone, away from the major number of people waiting for a train. You mark yourself as someone vulnerable. Not a smart position to take in such a group where panhandlers are waiting to see what they can get.

    For *some* of these individuals who choose to live this way (like the woman seen out the limousine window, like the relative I saw on the way to work) the way they live is a choice; their choice of how they prefer to live. No one is going to change them and any attempt at change is useless and if persisted in will end in despair for the person trying to “help” the individual. One simply has to let such people live the life they choose to live; and they live surprisingly well in their own way. They are generally amazingly resourceful in many ways when it comes to survival, creatively so, one might say. One might choose to help such a person, if one has some connection to such an individual; but definite boundaries have to be set and sustained or things get out of hand quickly.

    When it comes to strangers, one has to quickly evaluate the difference between the person choosing to live on the street and the person simply down on his/her luck for a short period of time and trying desperately to get back on his/her feet. Surprisingly again, it is possible to see the difference almost immediately. The “look” of the person is different. That look may be something intangible, but it is definitely “there”.

    For those who choose such a life, my choice has been to wish them well but that’s all; I would try to avoid any sense of disgust, disapproval, or judgment, for there but for the grace of God go I. Yet, I’d avoid them as much as possible and not give them anything. If one wants to help the homeless, shelters and crisis centers will be glad for donations.

    However, I also realize that in the two decades since I’ve been traveling in circles where I generally might meet such individuals, times have changed; people can be and are more aggressive and even dangerous these days. All the more reason to wish them well silently but also ignore and/or avoid them.

    The sensei-teacher who had well-off people live a life “on the street” for a week is a good attempt at allowing a person to experience such a life. However, such an “exercise” is *not* a choice of a way of life, is not a consistent, long lasting, day-by-day way of living. I think of the recent attempt by some members of Congress to live on $77 per week. This might be funny if it weren’t so pitiful; too many people actually must support not only themselves but also their family on such low wages; one job is never enough in such a situation. I saw a Chicago Congresswoman speak about living on $77 a week; she said it was impossible and she had to “supplement” that $77. (All I could think of is the minimum wage worker needs another job to “supplement” his income; he/she just doesn’t dip into a different purse or pocket for other money.) In some ways it was an insult to the poor people of the world.

    I would think that if one wants to help the hungry poor of the world a consistent charitable contribution, say each month, would be appropriate. It’s ridiculously easy to find such charities.

    As to the “Odd Fellows”: No, they were not “odd”; they might have been “odd” in the sense that they actually tried to help the poor in a time when there were no official governmental or religious organizations to help the poor. I guess for their time they were “odd” as few people cared about the poor then.

    Nowadays, we have numerous religious and governmental and private organizations set up to help the poor.

    Since this last depression it seems we certainly could use a St. Francis, but then perhaps we may have one and not recognize him. Warren Buffett is attempting to get billionaires (with a “b”) to live on *half* their income to help the poor. (He’s having difficulty getting people to do that.) We have such places as St. Jude’s Hospital helping children, no questions asked when it comes to money, no money required. So many places where, if one wants to help the poor, one can easily contribute on a regular basis.

    For those who choose to live the life of what might be called these days a true “odd fellow” (how times change and words change), they make their choice and somehow are satisfied (even as happy as anybody else) with their life. I wish them well. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 11, 2014 @ 11:12 pm

  2. There aren’t that many panhandlers near where I live, and perhaps because of that I am always troubled when I see one. Yet I rarely give them any money – perhaps because I have intelletualized that it is the government’s responsibility to take care of them.

    Panhandlers with severe mental issues are far less likely to get any money – for obvious reasons. But isn’t it ironic that the people who are most likely to be homeless through no fault of their own generate the least sympathy?

    Comment by Zreebs — August 27, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

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