Thursday, January 26, 2006

The well runneth dry

My heart has hardened to the panhandlers at the Alewife rotary. Every morning I see them walking back and forth, up and down the lines of cars waiting to get through the light. Many mornings, I handed them my stash of toll change—the plaintive hand-lettered signs they carry and their tired eyes were just too much for me to ignore. At first there were only one or two of them, but a few months ago their numbers swelled and now there’s a panhandler for all four entrances to the interchange. During the evening rush hour, I’ve seen five of them working the lines of traffic.

That’s when I started getting suspicious. And then I hated myself for getting suspicious. What kind of horrible person thinks badly of the homeless? But their hand-lettered signs all looked like they’d been written by the same person, and I noticed a certain organization to the way the panhandlers worked their assigned traffic lanes during the morning and evening rush hours. My suspicions were just something I felt terrible about, though. Until today.

This morning, all of the panhandlers had canes. All of them.

These people, who until today had ably trodden wet, cold paths through the snow and mud next to the road, were all carrying identical gray orthopedic canes, the kind you can get at the pharmacy. Do ploys get any more transparent? If one of the panhandlers had suddenly started using a cane, that would be one thing, but all four on the same day? My sympathy and generosity have tapped out as of now.


c-dream said...

I would say that's pretty convincing. It's like the whole scam when you're going to a baseball game that isn't sold out. A bunch of guys who are clearly scalpers will stand outside on the further reaches of the stadium with signs that say "Need tickets." They want to create an artificial urgency to buy scalped tickets, as though tix aren't available through the box office. So when you see their collaborators positioned slightly further in on the grounds, you figure you better buy from them or you'll be out of luck.

It is probably a sadly effective system.

Gary McGath said...

I'm reminded of the "Court of Miracles" in Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris. It was the home ground of the beggars, and got its name because when the "blind" came there they could see, and when the "lame" came they could walk fine.

jason said...

I wonder if there's a level of competition among people who actually are homeless and desperate. Maybe some realize that the ones who look more homeless and more desperate are getting all the handouts, so the rest compete by taking on new looks or gimmicks. It doesn't diminish their need, of course, but it does seem somehow disingenuous.

phil said...

okay, so it's not victor hugo, but with a little help from amazon's "search inside," i managed to track down this little gem i remembered from david foster wallace's infinite jest. it's totally true--i used to work the graveyard shift at the allston store24 at comm&harvard, a common site for these types of strategy sessions:

(This is apparently just one of the things that one learns in a substance-recovery program)

"That the metro Boston street term for panhandling is: _stemming_, and that it is regarded by some people as a craft or an art; and that professional stem-artists actually have like little professional colloquia sometimes, little conventions, in parks or public transport hubs, at night, where they get together and network and exchange feedback on trends and techniques and public relations, etc."

fiction, of course, but it rings true to me. apparently the cane trend is alive and well!

(i came in via the universal hub--nice blog)

Moxie said...

I really like the Notre Dame and Infinite Jest references--so accurate.

Jason--maybe you're right and they're trying to compete. I've wondered if they have to hand over a portio of what they make at the end of the day?

Phil--glad you like it :)

Carmen said...

Oh, I was going to write about this! We need to investigate.