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The Most Worn Out Anecdote Evah

June 6, 2008
Seriously, it has been around forever. I remember the first time I heard it. A man who I was in the military with was yapping about a homeless man that approached him at a truck stop. Unfortunately, we had to use truck stops, designated truck stops that would accept our government fuel card. He felt compelled to yap up this story after I asked what took him so long to catch up. Bush and Clinton were campaigning that summer for president. My fellow service member was hell-bent on voting for Perot and was pretending to be open for voting differently, so he claimed he was going to eat and talk to a homeless man about the race. His story was about how a homeless man approached him asking for money. He asked the homeless man what the money was for, the homeless man said it was for food. To make sure the homeless man used the money for food he told the homeless man to go with him to the nearby McDonald’s so he could buy him something to eat. Supposedly, the homeless man refused to go with him and instead moved on. To this self-labeled Good Samaritan the homeless man’s refusal to get something to eat established his true motive. He wanted money for alcohol and/or drugs, not food. What if he did want the money for alchohol and drugs?

Have you heard of this anecdote before, perhaps changing the details somewhat? I have. Many, many times. Actually I am thinking of it right now because Mr. Glendower told me a homeless man (or if not homeless, the man who holds a sign saying he is homeless and has AIDS) rejected a barrel of chicken wings when offered. Mr. Glendower said he had no cash on him so he asked if he would like the chicken wings that he just bought from the grocery store deli. The man told him that most fried foods upset his stomach. I’ve seen this man before, he occupies the same spot most of the time. I do think he has AIDS; he certainly looks in bad shape. I held my breath thinking Mr. Glendower was going to go into the anecdote about why the homeless man preferred money, fortunately, he did not.

Nevertheless, I started thinking about people and how and why this anecdote is so common. I assume because it first alleviates guilt and second it garners a pay off to the giver, whether he or she gives or not. If they give, they get to brag about it, –how else do we hear of it. If they do not give, a person can rationalise why not to give to a homeless person, then he or she can forget the incident and move on without feeling guilty. This is the forfeiting of personal power common in many people than I do not understand. Give, don’t give, why get tangled up in it? Maybe my lack of understanding or identifying with their dilemma comes from not growing up privileged. Of course, a homeless person is in worse shape than I was as a child, but I would have to say, barely. Meaning, one false step, one missed dollar, one betrayal of submission or deference and I (we, really) would have fallen from the fringe to the starting point of homelessness. The balancing becomes dizzying, comfortably dizzying because it is familiar, and uncomfortably dizzying because it is perpetual chaos, and, at the same time, the urge to let go and fall into the pit is seductively dizzying, because letting go is escape, and escape is freedom. There is a mysterious unspoken promise to that, the letting go promises relief from pressure, freedom from the stress of the daily grind. However, it is often the dirty face, the haggard begging face that brings one back to the fringe and suppresses all thoughts about letting go. Thus, the rub. The rub because we know the homeless is there to keep us in our place by making us not want to become homeless, because yuck, they are dirty and must beg for their daily bread. On the other hand, it is the forcing of us in our place that makes the thoughts of homelessness alluring from the start.

Knowing all of this makes me wonder why some people, everyday people use the powerlessness of the homeless to personally power trip. If a person with money (or money to spare) decides to give a homeless person a quarter, a dollar, or even five or more, what right does that person have to dictate or expect a certain transaction. There is no product involved. It is not a business transaction. A person does not get to buy what he or she needs to alleviate his or her guilt from the homeless. And yes, they are trying to commodify their gift if a condition is attached to that gift. “I will give you money if you will not buy drugs or alcohol.” “I’m not going to give money just so he/she can go buy drugs/alcohol.” Okay, so don’t give, who is making you? But ask yourself why you must talk about it afterwards, why you must use the anecdote and at what times do you find that you think of this anecdote. I do not understand why many people who do give expect to dictate the use of his or her gift, hence a gain, and when they do not give, he or she expects a gain as well, “I’m morally superior because I prevented that person from buying alcohol and drugs by not giving them any money.” You did not give (if you had and could give) because you could not buy something, that’s why, and, you felt cheated because you were approached with a situation that you had nothing to gain from other than being a compassionate person, so you tried to fabricate a gain. Why must there be a gain for the giver? Because in our society, if you do not walk away with a gain when you interact with someone, you are a loser. It is this desire to not be the loser that removes us from humanity. Losers are too human. Even with no proof with regards to what the money is used for, not that it should matter, the narrative is written by the privileged and either way it benefits the privileged every time. The privileged are winners, and in our society winners cannot afford to be human.

  1. Anna permalink
    June 7, 2008 12:59 am

    Well done, Kitty. You’ve hit on a number of key issues that are usually overlook with this troubling situation of homelessness & giving in our country.

    I lived for many years in Boulder county, Colorado – lots of money floating around. Boulder has a large homeless community, believe it or not. They are not “home grown” folk – supposedly – but homeless people who travel to Boulder because it is lax about pan-handling (Denver illegalized the practice). Though I was always baffled by the idea of people with no money somehow being able to get to Boulder in the first place. Be that as it may – Boulderites were advised NOT to give money to these folks for the same reasons you are citing – drugs & alcohol. To Boulderites’ credit – many ignored this advice. Almost everyday I saw people giving money to homeless people standing at intersections.

    I appreciate your pointing out that the requiring that an actual meal be bought with money given takes power away from people how have no power already. All they have left is there sense of self, their self respect. To be required to be taken to MacDonalds by a do-gooder – no matter how well intentioned – takes away the power of the homeless person to decide what to do with money given to them. The final nail in the coffin of their self respect.

  2. Kitty Glendower permalink
    June 7, 2008 2:12 am

    requiring that an actual meal be bought with money given takes power away from people how have no power already. All they have left is there sense of self, their self respect.

    Oh Anna, that is it isn’t it. It just makes me want to cry. I could not get to the root of it, I just kept feeling the wrongness in dictating what the money is used for but I did not cross over the line to the other side enough. I was dividing, the homeless against the not homeless and I just did not move into the homless’ body enough to get to that point. Yes, it is the last drop of self-respect removed, taken. It is infantilising, “here, let mommy or daddy take you over here and feed you.” How right you are. How utterly more horrible now that the words have narrowed it down to the rawest point.

  3. Chris permalink
    June 7, 2008 4:47 pm

    I have seen that situation once, but understood it. My buddy and I were heading back to the beach after getting lunch. We stopped next to a guy who was a fixture there. He would either have a work for food sign or he was selling single flowers for the floral shop. I gave him one of the hot dogs I had just gotten for myself. He said thanks but as we drove away, he just tossed it on the ground. We were kind of pissed but Rob later pointed out that he wouldn’t eat food that a stranger handed him either.

    I like what you said though. Give or don’t give. Just don’t “give with conditions”.

  4. momo permalink
    June 8, 2008 5:31 pm

    This is a great post, kitty. I lived in Berkeley for fifteen years, where there have been many homeless or street people.Not all of the panhandlers were homeless, but they were not able to work for a variety of reasons, including the fact that then-Gov. Reagan had closed down many of the mental hospitals, and a lot of sick people were out on the streets. Every day on my way to class I got asked for money 10-15 times. I gave when I wanted to, or when I could, if it was a woman, if it felt safe to pull out my wallet. When I didn’t give, I didn’t sweat it because I personally was not going to be able to give to everyone every day. The solution to their problems was not charity, but justice.
    I hate all the mean things people said about why one shouldn’t give, the angry defensive or self-righteous justifications. Blaming the less fortunate is one of the ways people have for trying to avoid thinking about their own connections to a system that forces people to live on the street.
    There is a song that I think is by Phil Ochs: “There, but for fortune, go you or I…”
    I try to remember that any one of us can end up in trouble, and many people I know have been one step away from that street corner, except that they had family to fall back on.

  5. CountryDew permalink
    June 9, 2008 4:13 pm

    Great post. I think it’s all about power and control. People are so busy minding everyone else’s business they can’t tend to their own.

  6. Unsane permalink
    June 18, 2008 10:10 am

    Some subversion:

    At midnight
    Gaunt skeletons
    Urinate by the roadside. Against
    The polished blackspread of sky
    The sarcely visible moon
    And the satiated roar of waiting thunder.
    I look around at the shuttered houses
    The eerie neon signs, the car speeding past
    To some distant unknown home, and I lie down
    Again within the hibiscus hedge, my refuge
    From wind and cold and dour premonition


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