Downtown Chicago, where I spend most of my time, has beggars on nearly every corner.
Many of them have regular perches, like fishermen with favorite spots. Others, more creative – and usually more crafty – seem to wander around instead. But except for the licensed sellers of Streetwise and a truly unfortunate few, most of them are hustlers.
The legless Viet Nam veteran whose bare stumps stick out beneath his shorts as he sits, head hung in discouragement, at the corner of Adams and LaSalle Streets is truly unfortunate, a man who gave his legs for a country that turned its back on him when he came home from an unpopular war.
So is the rather lively but elderly fellow who stands outside the Walgreen’s at 200 West Adams Street cheerily chirping “have a nice day’ to all who pass, hoping without asking that someone will slip him a few bucks to help him through the day. It seems likely he is mentally challenged.
But most of the rest I encounter are frauds and tricksters.
Take, for example (please!) the ubiquitous white college-age beggars who prop themselves against lampposts with hand-lettered “homeless” signs while drinking their morning Starbuck’s coffees and reading their Kierkegaard and Karl Marx. If they’re not college students raising beer money or leftovers from the last Lollapalooza, Grateful Dead concert, or “Occupy” protest then I’ll eat the “School of the Art Institute” T-shirts right off their backs.
Some panhandlers are quite creative, even entertaining. A roving trickster most often seen in the vicinity of South Michigan Avenue does quite a good Shakespeare rendition while greeting potential victims with a flourish and a “Greetings, kind sir! Prithee, may I have word with you?”
Perhaps my favorite, for their brazenness and gall, are those who approach with the desperate plea: “I don’t want your money; may I please just ask you a question?” “Sure, what’s your question?” “May I please have some money?” No, you may not.
I’ve been taken in more than a few times, though, because I’m what you might deride as a “compassionate” conservative. Although I truly believe that it’s better to teach someone how to fish than simply to give him one, I’ll sometimes give a hungry person a fish nonetheless. Almost always I regret it later. For the more elaborate the story, the more likely it isn’t true.
A young, tall African-American clad in red and white basketball warm-ups and size sixteen shoes approached me one cold, dark Christmas Eve, tears streaming down his obviously distressed face. “What’s wrong with people in this town?” he lamented. “Everybody sees a seven foot tall black man approaching them and they run away.” I didn’t.
His spiel was that he’d missed the University of Oklahoma basketball team bus back to Norman after a game in Chicago and needed $85.00 to get home for the holidays. Of course, he would repay me once he got there. He was tall enough and wearing the right colors, but when I tried to flag down a passing police cruiser to help out, he bolted. According to that evening’s sports roundup, the Oklahoma Sooners were playing in the Chaminade Classic in Honolulu , 4246 miles away from Chicago.
Another supposed college student, an agitated young white man, insisted one Labor Day weekend evening that his wallet had been stolen when he fell asleep on the CTA. He, too, needed cash to get home, in this case for a train to South Bend to meet his father who would drive him back to Indiana University. He even had a police report documenting the supposed robbery.
I left him with the doorman in my building lobby while I called the local precinct, which verified that a person by that name had indeed filed such a report. A quick Internet search revealed an IU student by that name. Still, I knew almost immediately that I’d been taken from the look in his eyes and the speed with which he fled when he grabbed the $70.00 from my hands. A week or so later a Chicago Tribune columnist wrote about having been taken in by the exact same scam.
I could tell you about the pregnant woman and her husband who’d been burned out of their home (he had scorch marks on his had to prove it) for whom I bought $60.00 worth of groceries, the fellow with the scar on his forearm just out of prison who took me for $40.00 for the magazine subscriptions that never arrived, or the kid with the fake UNICEF ID who scowled when I gave him a check (which never cleared) instead of cash when he came collecting door-to-door. I could even tell you about the construction worker who needed fifty or sixty bucks to get home because his truck had blown its starter – three nights in a row – but I won’t.
Just don’t feed the pigeons when you come to Chicago, especially if they’ve got a story to sell. You might just turn out to be one.