What the hell and why not?

On a rainy day a few months back, I came out of the bodega carrying a sack of groceries, and walked a wet block to my bus stop. There's a new café there, too upscale for that semi-slummy neighborhood, and inside gents wore neckties and ladies wore dresses as they ate overpriced slop. In the window was a sign you've seen many times, many places: "Please do not give to panhandlers."

I've rarely given money to bums. If they asked nice and I was in an astoundingly good mood, maybe I'd reach into my pocket and hand over a quarter. With inflation, my very rare generosity rose to a dollar or a few, but 999+ times out of 1,000, same as everyone else, I've always walked by and ignored the American refugees.

That sign, though, "Please do not give to panhandlers"? That's always pissed me off.

First, there's nothing wrong with panhandling. The pay's shit but it's an honest living, and less damaging to society than, say, advertising, or the manufacture of weapons, or cologne.

Second, my money is mine. You tell me, Don't give to panhandlers, and I'll tell you, my ass. Nobody tells me how to spend my money.

Third and most annoying is the un-posted subtext of the sign — Don't give to panhandlers, because they'll only spend it on drugs or liquor. Anyone who believes that's a valid argument for stinginess deserves a month on the sidewalk without a bank account, without a job, without a fridge, a bed, a home.

A panhandler was on the sidewalk in front of the café, but it was raining and I'm an ass so I walked past him.

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The next day, elevatoring up from the subway in a more upscale neighborhood, I saw another "Please don't give to panhandlers" sign. This one suggested giving to a charity instead, and I thought, Oh, bite me. Giving to charity might do some good, if the charity isn't some scam paying its executives $100,000 a year and its CEO twice that, but giving to charity is an abstract concept — handing a stranger some coin or cash is charity.

A guy with a tin can and a cardboard plea was sitting almost directly under the sign, and on an unusual impulse I decided to give him dollar or two. A brief shot of hope for the hopeless. There were no ones in my wallet and bums don't take checks, so I gave him a five. This tied my all-time record for a single act of generosity toward someone on the street.

Then I went about my errands, most of which involved spending money. On my walk back to the subway in the afternoon, that same guy was still there with the same sign, and I ignored him, of course. Limit one act of kindness per stranger.

In the doorway of a boarded-up shop on the same corner, though, a tooth-deprived man and woman were huddled together — romance in rags. They were holding hands, and I'll admit I'm a sucker for love, so I gave them each a five-dollar bill. That's more kindness from me in one day than in all of 2022 until that day, but what the hell and why not?

It was May when I saw those signs, and this isn't like me at all, but ever since, I've been handing a five-dollar bill to anyone who asks. And sometimes to especially haggard-looking people who haven't asked, and maybe haven't anything.

♦ ♦ ♦

That weekend I wrote a rough draft of this, but pushed it aside. It smelled like a sermon, and Fuck sermons. Over the past few months I've rewritten and rewritten this, and maybe it still sounds like I'm telling you to be kind to the homeless, but I'm not. No haranguing here.

Like most things in my very selfish life and almost everything on the website I've named after myself, this article is about Doug Holland — me and my local bums, not you and yours. So don't do what I'm doing, unless you want to.

♦ ♦ ♦

When it started, I thought, Now is the time to beg me for spare change, ya bastards, because it's a limited-time offer. I can't afford to do this for long.

Turns out I can afford it, though. It feels like you're always being panhandled in a big city, and maybe that's true downtown, but in the neighborhoods where I live and come and go, panhandlers approach me 4-5 times a week. Usually I don't give unless someone asks, so it's $20-$25 p/week. Not a big expense, and it's not about the money any more.

Well, maybe for the bums it's about the money, but not for me.

Not only have I never done anything like this, I've laughed at people who did, but now I'm not laughing. We're all abandoned souls, you know. Forgotten people. See that grimy guy wearing filthy clothes and arguing with the air? He's only slightly more abandoned and forgotten than me, or maybe you. Brief shots of hope for the hopeless includes all of us.

♦ ♦ ♦

Well, almost all of us. There's an especially pitiful black man who wanders the block near my favorite diner, and whenever I'm there, so's he, walking across the parking lot, or on the sidewalk, or sitting next to the dumpster. His face has odd sores, his hair is a bramble bush, his raggedy pants have pee stains, his shoes expose his toes. Sometimes he asks for spare change, but I've never given him anything, and never will.

I don't want that man begging green from me every time I'm at the diner. Likewise, I won't give to any bum within two blocks of the library, or my preferred coffee shop, or the bodega where I shop.

♦ ♦ ♦

Outside of my two-block refusal zone, when I see a beggar's cup or someone asks if I can spare anything, the answer is yes. It solves nobody's problem, barely makes a sliver of difference, but I like doing it, and what's five bucks per bum? Hell, riding the bus costs $2.75 each way, so I spend more than $5 just getting to and from the diner.

I reach into my pocket, hand over the money, and smile. Usually I say nothing. The bums almost always say thanks, but it's not required. That's not the point.

A few have wanted to shake my hand, so we shake, and after I've walked away I'll reach for a wetwipe, sanitize my fingers and palm. When I ran low on wetwipes I walked into Walgreens and bought more. Nobody has tried to hug me, which is fine, because Walgreens doesn't sell full-body wetwipes.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

I am not on a mission from God. I'm still me — a cheapskate bastard, wrapped up in my thoughts, who often walks past beggars without seeing them.

When I notice, though, and when I hear, the bums who ask get five bucks. Especially when I see those "Please do not give to panhandlers" signs. To me those signs are a reminder, and they're actually saying, "Please do not give less than $5 to panhandlers." That's my new minimum.

It started as an experiment. I wondered what it might feel like to be a decent human being, and after two months the results are in: It feels good, so I'm not stopping.


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