When it comes to people asking you for money, I didn’t have a particularly enlightened upbringing. When I was growing up, what you call homeless people today were “bums” to me. The story was that they didn’t want to work. (The ones that did want to work were “hobos.”) I remember that my dad told me that some of those guys living on the street down on Michigan Avenue had millions of dollars in the bank; they just wanted to be there. That explanation was good enough for me then.
I didn’t get much more enlightened when I started going into the city in the 1980s. Back then, the Cass Corridor attracted some of the most belligerent beggars Detroit had to offer. Sometimes, they’d order you to give them money; I recall that one actually barked at me: “Gimme a dollar!” And they were continually demanding cigarettes. In those days, you smoked on the street at your peril. Walking along the sparsely traveled sidewalks, it seemed one out of every three people would ask for a smoke if they saw you puffing. Sometimes they were so whacked out that, after you gave them a square, you’d have to remind them that they now needed a light. Then they’d crack off the filter and light up.
When I lived in New York, I learned that there’s a whole different class of homeless person. There, a beggar had to perform, tell a good story, or generally put the bite on you with a little panache. I won’t take up space telling all about them here, but I have dozens of stories of the inventive ways New York’s mendicants would use to wheedle money out of you. I might not give them money after hearing some dire story they’d probably made up, but I’d give them money if they made me laugh. And they often did.
But when I came back here, I realized that Detroit just has too many people asking for money. I mean, you could have been a Jesuit who just founded a successful mission in South America, and by the time you’d spent two weeks in Detroit you’d be quickening your step when you felt that question coming. Poverty is an overwhelming problem here, and you quickly feel one person can’t really do anything.
Personally, I think a lot of the people who say they don’t give because “they’ll just spend it on booze or drugs” don’t really mean it. They’re just tired of the annoyance of being canvassed for change. And it really does get to the point where you’re sick of people putting the bite on you. You can sense the windup coming from a half-block away.
You’d be surprised the lengths you’ll go to just to avoid one more beggar. When I started working at the paper in downtown Detroit, I stopped dressing up to go to work. I’d dress up after work to go to the bar, but I wouldn’t even wear a tie downtown. Why make yourself a target?
Once, I saw three down-and-out guys sitting against a wall outside Sweetwater and I could tell they were going to ask me for money. I purposely slowed my stride, took a dirty handkerchief out of my back pocket, laboriously mopped my brow, and walked by extremely slowly, trying to look as if I had just had the worst day in the world. It was a success: They wordlessly watched me go by.
Then again, on one cold day in downtown Detroit, I gave one shivering man my gloves. They were old, and I had another pair at home, but he really looked as though he could have used them right about then.
Generally, though, I was always looking for ways to avoid the bite. One of the best tactics I heard was from a guy known as “Fourth Street Billy.” He noted that, at the time, people asking for money started out with the fairly neutral-sounding, “Can I ask you a question?” (The following question was generally, “Can you spare a dollar?”) Billy had a terrific comeback, a variation on the older, “You already did!” He would reply: “I will answer any question for $1.” He told me it really stumped them.
I even tried it once. I was outside the Boll YMCA downtown and a guy rolled up and said, “Mister, can I ask you a question?” I shot Billy’s retort at him and waited to feel the satisfaction of getting one over on a beggar.
But it didn’t happen that way at all. The man saw no humor in the joke. Not that he was angry or offended, but that he thought over the offer way too earnestly. You could see the confusion in his face, as he wondered where he was going to come up with a dollar to ask a question. He slowly stammered out, “That’s too expensive.”
I had thought I was going to feel the joy of shutting down somebody who was annoying, but now I felt bad. Here was some guy who was so mentally damaged he had been robbed of his ability to see a joke right in front of him. All he probably wanted was a bottle of wine to curl up with under a freeway bridge. Was his life, his existence, just a joke to me? I never used Billy’s gag line again.
I’ve come to feel that ignoring homeless people has a way of harming you psychologically. Your ears get attuned to that too-ebullient cry of “Hey, my brother!” You begin to associate it with another pitch for change. You begin to ignore people who might actually have something to share, just because you suspect them of wanting something from you.
One time, I was walking into the Renaissance Center to snap some photos for the paper. I heard the words I hate to hear: “Excuse me, sir! Sir!” I kept walking. The voice cried more urgently, “Sir! Sir! Excuse me! I want to ask you a question!” I made it to the revolving doors and entered the building, feeling relief as the air conditioning hit my face. I walked another 15 paces and heard the voice again: “Sir! Excuse me! Sir!” I was amazed. This was a cheeky beggar, following me indoors to hustle me. He actually ran a bit and caught up with me. It was deeply disturbing to find him kind of hollering in my ear: “Sir! Sir!”
I stopped and turned around. It wasn’t a homeless dude, but a uniformed African-American staffer, probably with the building. He looked at me and said, “Are you the Otis elevator repairman?”
The question was so absurd that I would have normally laughed. But I looked down at my Carhartt pants, my work shirt, the small bag I was carrying, and realized I did indeed look like an elevator repairman. (Again, it helped you avoid the bite.)
I told him I wasn’t the person he was looking for, but the look in his eyes said much more. It said he knew why I wasn’t responding. It communicated all the nuances of the situation better left unmentioned, the race and class contours of the little dance we’d just acted out. It left me feeling like a heel.
So I’ve changed the way I deal with people asking me for money. There are three situations where I’ll keep walking without comment. One is if I feel threatened: Maybe I see some other people lurking around and feel like I’m being set up for something more serious. Another is if I know and dislike a certain person: There are a few chiselers in Detroit I know personally and loathe, and I’ll keep ignoring them. And, finally, I will not respond to people who are hustling me in a restaurant or bar; I believe there should be an understanding that “spare change?” is a question that belongs out on the street, and not in a place of business. That seems fairly reasonable.
But I do try to take at least a moment to answer people who ask me for money these days. It reminds me of something Allen Ginsberg said before he died, that it doesn’t cost anything extra to affirm somebody’s humanity. When we walk along and ignore somebody who’s asking a question, it means we’re denying them their humanity. They, after all, were somebody’s baby once. If you’re down and out and homeless long enough, it eventually drives you crazy. And it’s because you become invisible. It’s not so hard to stop for a moment and say, in a kind and friendly voice, “No, sir. I’m not going to give you anything. But I wish you good luck and hope your fortunes improve.” Half the time, you get a friendly smile and actually gain something.
You see, poverty isn’t something that just affects a static percentage of us. According to some statistics, four out of five Americans are poor at some time in their lives. Some have been poor in the past; some will be poor in the future, many long after they were unconcerned with “the chronically poor.” And I agree that poverty often expresses itself in people mired in substance abuse and petty crime. But when four out of five people will get stuck in poverty at some point, in one of the richest countries in the world, you can’t really argue that it’s all the fault of the individual.
If we’re serious about wanting people to be able to get out of poverty, we shouldn’t deny people their humanity when they need it most. For many of them, it’s all they have left.