Panhandlers

The other day I was getting gas at OnCue when a man walked up to me.

“Hey man, you think you could help me out? I need some dinner.”

“Absolutely man. What do you want?”

“Can you just meet me around the corner with the cash? They don’t like me panhandling here in the parking lot. I’ll get kicked out.”

“I don’t have any cash on me. But I’ll use my credit card and buy you whatever you want to eat. So just let me know what you want and I’ll run in and get it for you.”

This took him by surprise. He hemmed and hawed for a minute before saying, “Just a Snickers is fine.”

I got him the Snickers, shook his hand and went on my way.

That moment reminded me of two similar tales from my Lawton days, the first of which shaped how I handle these situations. The second one was just funny.

Like most people fresh out of college, I was more or less broke when I first moved to Lawton in 2002 to start working for the Constitution. I didn’t have any student loan debt but I also didn’t have anything in my bank account, and my salary at the paper wasn’t going to change that. On the plus side, I was a single guy without any expensive habits so it wasn’t hard to survive.

One night I was on dinner break at the paper and went to a fast-food place. Seems like it might have been Quiznos but I can’t say for sure. Anyway, it was your standard fast food joint and it was probably 7 p.m. so it was fairly busy. I was sitting at a table by myself eating when a man came up and asked if I could help him out. We talked for a minute and I said, “Why don’t you go get your food and then come eat with me until I have to go back to work?”

He said that sounded great. I don’t remember how much money I gave him but I doubt it was more than $10. Big bills (aka $20) weren’t really part of my life back then. I actually think I may have given him $7 or pretty much the exact cost of the meal. While I may not remember exactly which restaurant I was at or how much money I gave him, I’ll never forget what happened next.

There were probably four people in line ahead of him. At first he just waited in line normally. Then after he moved up a spot he started to kind of shuffle his feet in place nervously. Then he was staring down at the money and moving it around in his hands (this is why I think I gave him multiple bills). He glanced back at me a couple of times and then back to the money, then to the front of the line. All of a sudden when it was his turn to order he bolted out the door, never to be seen again (by me anyway).

Obviously it sucks to get ripped off, even if it’s only for a few dollars. But I could tell from his body language and how nervous he got in the line that it was really a struggle for him of what to do with that money. He probably felt crappy about himself afterward, which is why I decided personally that I wasn’t going to give money out in those situations anymore. Everybody needs food and water, so from then on I would meet those needs directly and not put someone in a situation where they have to make a hard decision about how to spend the cash.

When I’m going to play poker, I usually have a few snacks in my backpack. When I’m stopped at a light I’ll offer a granola bar or a pack of peanut butter crackers. Those get accepted about 50 percent of the time. A couple of times when they’ve been declined it’s because the person doesn’t have any teeth. A few years back, Missy and Addie put together some basic survival packs that included socks, toothbrush/paste, bottled water and snacks. I thought that was pretty neat.

A few years after that first incident, when I had moved up in the world to the point of having a wife and owning a house, I was at Whataburger with my buddy Spike. We had just finished playing poker so it was probably 2 a.m. (I long for the days I could eat Whataburger on the reg at 2 a.m. and not gain weight).

This guy comes up to us and asks for food money. I told him to order whatever he wanted, it was on me. So he orders a triple cheeseburger value meal, supersized, with a strawberry shake. Gotta tip my hat on that order, it’s impressive. He thanks me and then sits down and eats the meal. There’s not really anyone inside the restaurant at this time besides us.

Spike and I finish our food about the same time as this gentlemen, and as we’re leaving he corners us again and asks for $20 for a cab ride across town. I tell him I can’t do that but I hope he enjoyed his meal. He starts yelling at me that I’m a racist. Meanwhile Spike reaches into his pocket and gives the dude whatever change is in there, about 50 cents. He says, “Thank you so much. God bless you. You’re not PREJUDICED like your friend here. He’s a RACIST!!”

I said, “Dude I just bought you $10 worth of food.”

“No you’re PREJUDGING me!!! PREJUDGING! PREJUDGING!” We slithered out of there while he kept yelling at me.

P.S. After I posted this, Spike remembered that the guy was wearing a Michael Irvin Dallas Cowboys jersey. So I had already overlooked that sin when I bought his dinner in the first place.

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