Biff America column: Getting past the hat, seeing the man
June 27, 2013
The man was filthy, smelled of urine and, what's worse, wore a New York Yankees hat. He sat against the wall with a battered fast-food chicken bucket containing coins and bills with a sign reading, "Any help, wood help, God bless."
I have a soft spot for bad spellers, so despite the Yankees hat, I pulled out a $20 bill and placed it into his bucket. My buddy, with whom I was walking to lunch, looked at me with eyes wide. "Are you nuts? Don't give those guys money. They'll just spend it on booze."
I was a little taken aback; though Mike was politically conservative, he was also a kind and compassionate man.
I answered, "What do you want him to do with it, open a mutual fund? Of course, he'll drink it away, or buy food, I don't care. It's his money now."
Mike argued that by giving the "bum" money I was encouraging him to remain on the streets. He added that the reason I was so naive was because I lived in a place where there are no homeless or panhandlers.
"If you lived down here, you'd get sick of them blocking the sidewalk, peeing in stairwells and scaring pedestrians," Mike said. "I'm all for helping people, but they have to want to help themselves."
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I told him that I had a difficult time believing that the homeless remain homeless due to the cushy lifestyle provided by begging. I added that there were in fact panhandlers in the resort town where I live, many with better wardrobes than mine.
I admitted that I seldom gave them money because I failed to see their need.
I knew what was coming. I've argued with Mike long enough to know his next gambit.
He asked, "So what is the difference, how do you judge the sincerity of a panhandler in a mountain resort compared to the guy you just gave $20 to? What does a person have to do to win your sympathy and earn your support?"
I was ready for him. "Wet himself," I said. "Any person who wets himself is not panhandling as a hobby. He truly needs help."
For the rest of our walk and most of ensuing meal we debated.
It was my friend's contention that most street people could be working and living indoors. He seemed to be acquainted with more than a few organizations that attempted to help them.
I conceded that in a nation as rich as ours, I would agree that there must be some help available to those who have the presence of mind to seek it.
But I also know enough of the human condition to hold that not all people are dealing from the same frame of reference. To put it bluntly, some people are crazy.
Moreover, I do know that the availability of mental health care in this nation is abysmal.
There was a recent study of the homeless in New York City. It was found that 90 percent had a major psychiatric disorder — a clinical term for "crazy." I've known a fair amount of crazy people (family members not excluded), and none of them have chosen to be that way.
It is a no-brainer to say (pardon the pun) that those who are crazy didn't choose to be, and that those who aren't crazy should not take credit for their lack of insanity.
When I encounter the most disturbed and destitute that humanity has to offer, I often wonder what it would take for me to be in their ruined shoes and soiled trousers. I come up with: bad psychiatric genetics, a horrific, traumatizing event or living in a world where the term "President of the United States, Donald Trump" is spoken in earnest.
I honestly believe there is less credit or blame in this world than there is luck and genetics.
Bad things happen to good people, and if the circumstances are right then good, intelligent and hardworking people can end up in bad places.
I would like to feel deserving of my blessed situation when compared to others, but I cannot.
Deserving no, but grateful yes. I'm grateful to my parents for proving a comfortable upbringing, our nation for providing opportunity and also for the dumb luck of being born white, middle class, with no physical or mental hurdles and to have lived a charmed life without any major physical or mental trauma.
Certainly I have no delusion that my $20 made even the slightest bit of difference in that poor man's life; like most acts of kindness, it was more a gift to me than to him.
I can only speak personally when I say life is too short to spend a lot of time worrying about who is worthy of my, or my government's, help. Though it is often not entirely clear who is worthy, there is less debate over who is needy. Most of us will die with money in the bank, and I've never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.