Which Came First: the Panhandler or the Chump?

Walking to the bus stop, late at night, I meet friendly strangers.

One guy on Gay Street, a healthy, middle-class-looking young fellow, approached me with a question. I wondered if perhaps he might be looking for directions to Club LeConte. But he pulled a knife. It was, fortunately, folded. "You're not going to believe this," he said, smiling, "but I'm stranded and looking for money to get to Lake City. I need to sell this buck knife."

He said his buck knife was worth $40, but that he'd make me a bargain if I'd help him get to Lake City. I told him I grew up in the South, myself, and have a shoebox full of old pocketknives at home: Barlow, Case, Swiss Army, faux Swiss Army, Leatherman. I didn't buy any of them, but a guy growing up in Tennessee tends to accumulate pocketknives. Some belonged to people now dead, some I found on the road. I have scars on my left index finger from long-ago whittling incidents, but now I rarely use any of them. In any case, I did not need a buck knife.

He thought I was questioning the quality of his buck knife. "Seriously, I'm not lying," he said, sounding hurt. "It's a $40 buck knife." I told him I could hardly accept it even as a gift, just because I didn't need the weight banging against the nickels in my pocket. But he was pretty damn sure I wanted to buy his buck knife anyway. He seemed unable to picture a universe so crazy that strangers on the street did not want to buy a $40 buck knife.

It wasn't the first time someone had tried to sell me a knife on that sidewalk. Are people more likely to give money to a beggar who's technically holding a weapon? It's a question for behavioral psychologists.

It was my third solicitation of the evening. I chalked it up to the fact that due to a public appearance I'd worn a blue blazer and black leather shoes. All of which I bought back in another century, as it happens. But whenever I wear them together, street folks think I'm loaded and feeling guilty about it.

I occasionally give to Volunteer Ministry Center. I buy most issues of The Amplifier, partly out of sympathy for our embattled comrades in print media. Years ago, I sometimes gave to random strangers, on the theory that a dollar here or there might help them more than it would help me. In the 1980s, a frail old lady sat on a Gay Street bench and quietly asked passersby for a spare quarter. She was hard to pass by.

But some mission administrators have convinced me that giving money to panhandlers is not helping anybody. The people who are out there begging for money today are not the most needy: the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the single mother. They're hustlers. They're pros, and cons.

Knox County's unemployment rate is so low it could re-elect a president, and some of these folks have so much energy and gumption they'd make a good living as salesmen. They're pretty sure they can make a better living begging on Gay Street, which has never been so full of gullible pedestrians as it is today. A 10-minute walk away, food and basic care is provided for the needy—when panhandlers say they need your money for food, they always pretend they don't know about those options.

Even if I thought giving to them was a good idea, my own funds are limited. If I gave one dollar to every single person who asks me for money, it would become a line item much bigger than my annual county taxes.

I should add that aggressive beseeching is not typical, and in 30-something years working downtown I've never been directly threatened by a panhandler. Drivers who don't remember Drivers Ed, the part about yielding to pedestrians crossing on green, they're threatening—but not panhandlers. With the exception of the buck-knife peddler, panhandlers are mostly pretty meek.

Speaking of, I ran into him on Clinch, two weeks later. He was easier-going this time, more like a college kid. It was daytime, and there were people around, and he wasn't as aggressive as he was with the buck knife. "You're not going to believe this, man," he said. "But I'm stranded and I just need to get to Lake City."

"Still?" I said. "You could have walked."

He turned and walked away like I wasn't there. It's a reflex you see over and over. One Saturday evening a woman told me she'd run out of gas downtown. It was just about a week after the last time she ran out of gas downtown. Maybe it was insensitive of me to mention that fact.

But she made the same move exactly: It's a universal gesture, a graceful little pirouette, as soon as they realize it's not working. They don't try to explain, or prove anything. Their faces go blank, they avert their eyes without another word, and walk swiftly away as if the exchange never happened. Call their bluff, you cease to exist. You are of no use to them.

Sure, they were both looking for booze or drugs. Some good-hearted folks know they're lying but give money to them anyway, with the understanding that a dollar will allay their essential wretchedness, if only for a moment. These generous souls don't walk around as much as I do; they'd soon be broke.

A few years ago, City Council passed a law making panhandling after dark illegal. I have been panhandled after dark much more since the law was passed than I ever was before. It's not the law itself at fault. It's just that downtown's streets have never been so full of pushovers. Anybody looking for easy money would be a fool to overlook downtown foot traffic, lately dominated by folks who know about mendicants mainly from the Bible. I appreciate the sincerity of these small-time philanthropists, but they could find better ways to do good for the world.