Thursday, October 6, 2016

Usually, the Panhandler on the Side of the Road is a Man. In the Summer of 2016, the Panhandler Had the Face of a Woman.

Two people are holding signs, accepting alms, at corner of Fuller and Michigan in Grand Rapids tonight. It's become a frequent sight at all our major intersections. Usually, the man holding the sign has a beard and a haggard look. What's different lately is the number of women panhandling, younger women with stoic faces, jaws set tightly, showing little emotion. The woman at the south east corner by the Speedway held a sign that said, "Family is starving". I saw no one take notice and pass her money. I had little time to even think about shifting over one lane and stopping traffic. Shopping mall parking lots near McDonalds and fast food works for the sign beggars who work Norton Shores. When I talked to a few men on the bus, I heard stories of women bringing warm clothing, a meal or going to the ATM for twenties. The woman with the hand-lettered sign must have thought of this in a desperate minute. She is not alone in her desperation. Not long ago, I saw a woman holding a sign on US-31 leading south out of Grand Haven. Hers said, "Mom downsized. Children hungry". She had picked a dark corner where drivers stopped at the light couldn't talk to her. The corner on the north side of Robinson looked better because all the cars waited for the light on that side. I had to hit two US-31 turnarounds to reach her position, one to go north and one to go south and make a right turn. Then I had to turnaround in Southland's parking lot. Plenty of turns just to share a few dollars. 

Then again, who carries cash anymore? Panhandlers are unlikely to carry a credit card reader from Square. I had enough change to buy a pack of Doublemint Spearmint gum for two bits, two dimes and a nickel. When I passed that corner three hours later, she still had her sign up in two hands, still standing in the strenuous stance of the sentinel or the panhandler. I turned into the Speedway lot, called out to her, gave her what little change I had and an unopened can of iced tea. I've been drinking canned iced tea in the car all summer, an inexpensive drink that I hope doesn't give me diabetes. "It's not much, but at least you won't be thirsty". She accepted with a thin smile, then looked down at the ground. "I hope you luck improves soon". She looked up, smiled that grim smile again, popped open the cold can, pulled a drink, and returned to her corner.

Illustration of Cosette in the Thénardiers' inn at Montfermeil depicted by Émile Bayard (1837-1891).
 — in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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