Spare change?

From Pathetic Life #1
Friday, June 10, 1994

Had words with a homeless guy today. That's never fun, but this guy really needs to be slapped around a little — where's Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell when you need 'em?

I'm usually nice to the homeless. I don't snarl 'get a job' because I know employment ain't easy to get, and when my job runs out I expect to be begging for nickels myself. So when I've got it I've always given it, and once upon a time a couple of months ago, flush with funds and in a good mood, I gave this homeless guy a couple of quarters and a couple of sentences. But now whenever he sees me he is all over me, and when the answer is no he'll ask again and again.

"Hey, mister, got any spare change?" ... "Spare change?" ... "Can you help me with some spare change?"

This is what the Mayor means by 'aggressive panhandling'. And I hate the Mayor, by the way, like any good San Franciscan should, but when he's right, he's right.

I live near Union Square, where this man does his panhandling, so this same (presumably) homeless man was in my face today for maybe the fifth time this month, and I unloaded on him.

"Hey, I gave you some change a couple of times, but that doesn't mean I've adopted you as my son, and it doesn't mean I'm an easy mark every time you see my face. Do I look like J D Rockefeller? Well, I'm not. I'm a poor schmoe, and I'm tired of having you up and in my face every time I walk down Valencia Street. So give somebody else your endless whiney-eyed hard luck story, because I've heard it from you so many times I've got your whole shtick memorized. The answer is no. No today, no tomorrow, no the day after that and every day of your life. Capeesh?"

Was I too harsh?

All I know is, this jerk ain't getting nothing from me except a fist in the face if he doesn't back off.

And this sounds downright Republican, but I'm not giving to beggars any more. Effective immediately, if you want spare change from me, you've got to make me smile. I might have change for the robot-guy on Powell Street, or Mr Good Humor on O'Farrell, for the kazoo serenade on Mission, for the drum and violin duet in the BART station, or for any mendicant with a semi-clever line, but I've got no more change for someone asking for help 40 hours a week.

See, the competition is getting pretty crowded, and everyone on the street wants what little money I have, so rattling tin cans and looking like a loser just won't cut it any more.

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

Addendum, here and now: I am embarrassed that I wrote the above, and horrified that I said what I said all those years ago, to someone who was wounded already. I disavow all of it. If I knew where that poor, hungry spare-changer I yelled at was today, I'd apologize to him, and take him to breakfast at the diner.

Every word I wrote is wrong, but I'm posting it anyway, because what happened happened. Honesty was the whole point of my Pathetic Life project — I did all this stupid shit, wrote about it, and I guess I even thought it was amusing, so I'm posting it. No fair hiding from myself.

I was me in some ways back then, but politically I was a jackass. Let me tell you why, and what healed me:

When I was young and stupid, I read some books by Ayn Rand, which left me warped. I called myself a libertarian, which is a five-syllable synonym for asswipe. For too many years I believed, really believed, that wealth is earned, and that most poor people wouldn't be poor if they just worked harder. That's where my head was in 1994 — snuggled up deep in the crevice of my own butt.

In the words of John Cleese, "I got better," and most of the credit goes to my wife, Stephanie. We met a few years after these events, and to say she made me a better man is an exponential understatement; she made me a man, that's all. With her example, I learned about compassion, kindness, and just generally being a decent human being. Thank you, Steph, forever. And I miss you.

I didn't magically morph into Mahatma Gandhi, but I'm not the person I was on June 10, 1994. For one thing, I never give spare change to the destitute any more — instead I give spare cash, usually $1s, sometimes a $5 bill. And I wouldn't begrudge anyone who recognized me as a giver and asked me to give again, because it only makes sense — who's a more logical person to ask for help, than the man who helped you a week ago?

Today I'd say, "Here, stranger, have another couple bucks, and have a hug, and I hope it helps."

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  1. I like the new you, Stephanie showed the way.

    1. I like the new me too, and yup, she's still showing me the way.


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