As I was walking home from Mass on the second Sunday in Lent, a woman jumped into my path, thrust a stack of CDs in my face, and offered me my pick in exchange for five bucks.
YouTube having effectively reduced CDs to charmless art objects, I didn’t bother looking. But I did remember a meme I’d seen on my FB newsfeed earlier that day, which went something like “The three disciplines of Lent: Fasting, study and almsgiving!” Simple, unclever messages must hold a special power over me, or I’d ignore many more stop signs. After telling the woman to wait, I bought a pack of gum from 7-11, asked for $5.00 cash back, gave it to her, and continued on my way.
Maybe it’s just me, but the very word alms sounds terribly out of place these days. Let the partisan brawl begin: conservatives will thunder that Big Government has made almsgiving superfluous. Liberals will holler back about our Calvinistic ambient culture, where almsgiving looks as sentimental and as dangerous as handing out Twizzlers to grizzly bears at national parks. Well, having wasted years of my life in jobs that involved canvassing or cold-calling, both of which seemed only a few OSHA regs this side of panhandling, I’ve learned to see begging as a form of self-employment. Success demands persistence and initiatve, the shrewdness to tell a soft touch from a hardnose.
No less than a pitch, every plea is a performance. In Phoenix, the average beggar’s spiel boils down to an explanation — for example, “Bro, I need bus fare to get back to my old lady in Gallup.” In older, more compact urban areas, where the competition is stiffer and the audience perhaps more jaded, panhandlers don’t make excuses; they make impressions. One Christmas morning, on the A train somewhere around Columbus Circle, a quartet of apparent homeless sang “White Christmas” in very creditable, Platters-style harmony before passing the cup. On the Moscow Metro, a boy-and-girl Roma team knelt before me, folded their hands as if in prayer, and planted their heads in my lap. Whether they were making a supplicating gesture or a veiled threat — “Donate or be arrested for a sick sonofabitch” — I didn’t wait to find out. Instead, I duked them 20,000 rubles, silently praising their moxie.
Back to the lady and her CDs. Something about that quick and easy transfer of benevolence inspired me. At least through Lent, I decided, I’d make a point of supporting the panhandling industry. But here’s something about panhandlers that might surprise most people: like cops, they’re never around when you want one. To realize my project, I had to become the aggressor, staking out the Circle K and 7-11 that flank my apartment complex. Whenever someone approached me with a petitioning look in his eyes, I’d seize the initative by asking, “Do you need anything?”
The open-endedness of the question must have come from some researcher’s instinct, because the responses taught me a lot. Nobody asked for the moon. In fact, most people didn’t even ask for cash. Maybe the proximity of consumer goods constricts people’s imaginations, but nearly everyone asked for something that could be found on the shelves inside. Coffee was a steady crowd-pleaser, so were bear claws. Some people who saw me smoking asked for a cigarette, but — probably knowing how expensive they’ve become — nobody tried for a whole pack. Once, in an especially expansive mood, I did hand over a box containing 18 Pall Mall 100s (I’d smoked two already). The recipient asked, “Are you sure?” at least three times before accepting.
One guy did ask for money, but he specified a modest amount, and itemized it. “I need three bucks for gas,” he said. Cynical me, I took it for a line. Testing him, I said I’d have to pay with my debit card and asked which pump he was using. “That one,” the man said without missing a beat, and pointed. I looked, and sure enough, there was a rusted heap of a car with the gas cap lying on the hood. Feeling like God’s original heel, I asked the cashier to authorize the pump for five dollars — three wouldn’t have bought even a gallon.
After a few of these heartwarming encounters, I decided to up the ante. Since my apartment complex lets units cheap, it’s become home to a few people on fixed incomes. One is a guy I’ll call Claude, a schizophrenic who lives on disability and usually has enough on the ball to take his meds. As a slight counterweight to the curse of mental illness, Claude was blessed with a gift for housekeeping. Last fall, I paid him $30 to clean my bedroom carpet, and considered it money well spent. This Lent, as a kind of sinecure, I offered him $60 to clean the rest of my apartment.
Claude didn’t recognize it as a sinecure; he saw it as a job. My apartment’s small — one bedroom, plus a combination kitchenette and living room and a walk-in closet — and it’s dingy rather than dirty. Still, three hours under Claude’s care transformed the place. The imitation hardwood floors shone, the fixtures and cabinets gleamed. Sensing my satisfaction, Claude asked permission to quit and resume work the following Monday. When he returned at the appointed time, he was smiling slyly.
“Listen,” he said. “I already worked three hours cleaning your house, including your dirty, dirty bathroom. I’m thinking I’ll need another $40 for the rest.”
“Okay,” I said. “I paid $60 in advance; you worked for three hours. That’s $20 per hour, which doesn’t seem too bad, does it?” I told him, truthfully, that I had only $20 to spare, but that if he worked for another hour, he could have it.
Claude began work on my walls, which were once off-white, but which nicotine has since streaked with amber. He used a broom dipped in some orange cleaning solution; given the relatively small surface area, he made rapid progress. After half an hour, he looked up, pointed toward the bedroom door, and said, “After I get to there, we’ll call it a day.” It was a statement, not a question. Absorbed in my work, I nodded. Ten minutes later, I heard him say, “Okay, buddy! All done!”
I looked at the clock on my computer tool bar. “But we agreed you’d work for an hour.”
In a twinkling, Claude reapplied his shit-eating grin. “Nuh-uh,” he said. “We agreed I’d clean up to your door, and I did. Pretty, huh?” He had me over a barrel. And besides, if I felt like arguing with crazy people, I’d figure out a way to be Mark Shea. “Pleasure doing business with you,” I snapped as he collected his rags and his bucket and marched out in triumph.
So I guess I’m wrapping up this Lent a little wiser. On short acquaintance, it’s easy enough to sentimentalize the deserving poor. True open-handedness turns people shy, awakens some sense of proportion that makes ambitious mooching feel base. As long as you’re playing Lord Bountiful, they’ll make it easy on you by being very sweet in return. But, good grief, try to strike a deal with one of them, and he’ll overpromise, overbill, haggle and underperform so cannily, you’ll think he was to the entrepreneurial manner born.