Volume 16 • Issue 32 | January 9 - 15, 2004


The disappearance of beggars

By Andrei Codrescu

I used to have a panhandler fund earmarked for different cities. For instance, a week in New York, thirty dollars. A week in Mexico City, twenty. Standard of living differences. In New Orleans, I just handed out one-dollar bills to gutter punks and to two regulars in the French Quarter. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that there aren’t many panhandlers left. Last time I was in New York I still had twenty dollars after more than a week. I gave two dollars to a clean-cut woman who walked through the subway car reciting a very concise story of woe that didn’t have a word out of place. It could have been written by Madison Avenue. She’d lost her job, she had no place to sleep, she wasn’t on drugs, she didn’t drink wine, and she was studying to be a medical technician. Everybody gave her two dollars. In our subway car alone, that amounted to about a hundred dollars for a three-minute pitch. She was really a trained professional, not a panhandler of the old school. The gutter punks have disappeared from New Orleans. I just gave a dollar to a really scary guy with blooshot eyes who looked like he just escaped from Central Lockup, but that wasn’t charity. I just thought that he might knife me if I didn’t. The gutter punks are migratory and seasonal, so I’m surprised at their absence, because winter is their season. Maybe they all have jobs now. I haven’t been to Mexico City in a while, but I sure hope that begging hasn’t gone out of style over there, too. I’ve surveyed other places and they too are starting to lose beggars: Prague has only a few subway performers, not very well trained, who lament in a classical style that gets them nothing but unremitting hostility. In London, a bearded bum I mistook for a beggar, shook with indignation when I handed him some coins, and said, “I need more than that to rebuild my library!” You bet. If Europe is running out of panhandlers, it could be the end. In the U.S., people with buckets at airports and in shopping malls, are pretty much all that’s left of an old and noble profession. Most American cities aren’t even friendly to pedestrians, and begging at traffic intersections is hazardous. Still, I have a nagging feeling that the disappearance of panhandlers is not in any way connected to an improving economy. Or even to better law-enforcement. Begging is an art and it’s the art that’s disappearing. Either that or the destitute are running out of nerve. Even the scrungiest bum has to have a line and is required to look the mark in the face. The world’s worst practitioner was to be found a few years ago on Decatur St.: he was legless and smelly and placed himself to obstruct traffic with a rattling can with two quarters in it. I never saw anybody give him anything except a growl. But that was the exception. The good ones did something, anything, and some of them were very good. I say with Francois Villon, “Mais ou sont les clochard d’antan?” or, in English, Where are the bums of yesteryear?



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