A penny for your thoughts: getting to know a neighbor

Brookline | Culture | Access/Network
For the last couple of months, there’s been a man panhandling by the Store 24 on Beacon St., between the streetcar stop and the Griggs path. Today I gave him a buck, which is the same amount I gave him a couple of weeks ago, only that time he gave me a 1960 silver quarter in exchange. There’s been panhandlers before on the corner in years past, but no one really stuck around much, as far as I knew. Maybe he’s stuck around a bit because I asked him his name and give him a few words of conversation. So I see him once every couple of weeks; I’m not sure what his pattern is.

A few reasons for my charity (as if I really need to list any): I was elected a Town Meeting Member (by caucus vote to fill a seat), so I try to look out for goings-on in my neighborhood. Also, in the last year, I’ve been a recognized Friend of Boston’s Homeless, so I thought I’d reach out into my own town. Also there’s that pesky matter of interpersonal ethics which I keep rediscovering. Also, ever since my friend Joan demonstrated such grace in handling a vagrant outside our synagogue — an act which ultimately rationalized my choice to back her boss in the Presidential election, that would be John Kerry– I’ve tried to make it a personal mission to reach out where others don’t.

Also, I’m beginning to think of journalactivist, so I try to get practice asking questions and listening to people.

As tonight was quite mild, I thought I’d give him some time along with some change. How long does it take to collect a buck? I asked him. Twenty minutes, he told me. I said, alright, you’ve got my time for twenty minutes.

So I asked him where he lived (in a “halfway house” down the street from me), where/if he worked (3 odd jobs today). This information isn’t of any use to the greater Internet, as it is to my Griggs Park and Washington St. neighbors, to whom I sent some more details. I told them I wasn’t pleading a special case; I was just sharing information.

What did he need with the money? Smokes. Not the healthiest thing, but a cigarette isn’t the same evil for anybody, it suppresses the appetite. He asked me if I smoked weed; I suppose if I had a nose for news I would have asked him where he usually got his.

I never did get his undivided attention. For a buck, could he take a break from asking for money? Could I spare the other passersby from having to deal (or not) with a beggar? He didn’t care to take that chance, he asked for every nickel and every cigarette he could from anybody. He didn’t collect anything in the five minutes, maybe because people felt they could scoot past while I was keeping (at least some of) his attention. Though I thought he got the better end of the bargain, I wasn’t sure how much he appreciated it.

Maybe I’ll drive a harder bargain next time.

Postscript, February 17th: I wrote this piece as a lark, mostly, to take a break from media and politics, and next thing I find out, it got picked up by Universal Hub, Adam Gaffin’s “community journalism” project for Boston.
The irony is, for all the talk about the purported values of net-nurtured conversation I got zero comments back through here, zero through the Hub, zero even by email. (I will follow up with Jamie O’Neal at the Friends of Boston’s Homeless, but for lack of free time). I got the most feedback on this story by telling it firsthand to the Rabbi and other friends after services this past Saturday. One of my neighbors was delighted and grateful to learn of this, as she had been out with her daughger for a walk and was wary of seeing this strange man. My friend Joseph, a prosecutor in Suffolk County, inquired whether I had indeed bought the time exclusively. I suggested that Joseph be his public defender next time and negotiate the contract.
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    Interview with a panhandler Anonymous Feb 10 ’05 12:41AM
    Globe column, 2/20/05 Anonymous Feb 16 ’05 8:12PM