By William Markiewicz
In an article under this title (Toronto Sun, 2/13/01), Peter Worthington defines young white male urban panhandlers as comfortable parasites, on the way to doom because they aren't trained to survive. While this may be true in countless personal cases, and the hoodlum aspect of aggressive panhandling shouldn't be ignored, in socio-psychological terms this judgement may lack deeper insight; the human psyche is too complex for all-encompassing judgements. To start with, there is no such thing as comfortable panhandling, at least in our cold winters. I would like to give some examples of complexity in panhandling motivation:
I don't remember where, it was a while ago, I read a report by a Canadian or American journalist who, before WW2, traversed Spain as a "pobre (poor one)." Unbelievably, anybody, Spaniard or foreigner, could apply for official "Pobre" status and thus be given food, shelter and free train travel across Spain. Customs and border crossing formalities were already minimal. The Pobre carried a document with his photo and a printed memorandum from the authorities to give any needed assistance to "pobre such and such," not indicating whether it was Mr. or Mrs., just "pobre". Of course it was assumed that only a male would chose a tramp's lifestyle. According to the reporter, many young Nazi Germans used the system in their travels while openly declaring themselves superior to those easy going Spaniards who were very patient with all kinds of "tourists." Today, there are no longer such niceties, but many young hitchhikers everywhere will probably always use any free ride as part of their tourist adventure.
Panhandling was also considered a journey toward mystical realms. Buddhist monks beg as a part of their ritual. Panhandling is a way to use and escape society simultaneously. It is what many young urban panhandlers do today for romantic reasons. It may be a temporary stroll into the dark corners of the soul, toward romanticism lurking at the bottom of society, sort of a Court of Miracles. There is not much difference between panhandling, escaping to the desert or settling under Parisian bridges, whether for romantic, mystical, or pathological reasons. Escaping the norms is often hard to accomplish and hard to judge fairly. When St. Francis, coming from a wealthy family, went to beg on the streets, he apparently declared: "In the beginning it was hard to stretch out the hand." Under Parisian bridges, in the past, some intellectuals, professionals, became indistinguishable from other "clochards." When asked why they do it, the usual laconic answer was: "Because I like it."
A while ago I saw a French TV show where one actor, participating in some mundane reception, went to the men's washroom and declared: "I am a Russian prince and I need 500 dollars to pay my debts." I believe that he asked for dollars even if it was Paris. He looked convincing with his long false beard, long wig, tails and top hat. Somebody said: " "500 dollars is nothing to me" and gave it to him. After a while the 'prince' showed up again, repeated his formula and somebody replied: "OK, I'm a queer too," kissed "the prince" affectionately, and gave him a sum. Everybody had a good time and that's what counted.
Since time immemorial we've liked to make judgements on non-ordinary behaviour. We use philosophy, psychology, logic, science, to classify what is right or wrong. Usually the judgements don't withstand the test of time. Taboos of yesterday become the status quo of today. As long as the economy is healthy and manpower not lacking, panhandling will not be considered a major problem, just laziness or an escape toward a dreamworld.Back to the index of the Vagabond