This article appears as the “Last Call” in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
IT’S AMAZING, THE THINGS YOU HEAR when you regularly give a little cash to panhandlers. I’ve been told at least a dozen times now, for instance, the apocryphal tale of the man who makes $100 a day in sympathy cash posing as homeless. If this is the norm, I’ve seen bravo performances at countless Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and chain convenience stores worldwide, all worth the forty or fifty cents suggested donation. He tapped into a grimy desperation so real I could smell it!
As a matter of philosophical integrity, if I’m going to argue that individual charity is more effective than state-coerced redistribution, then I had better answer any earnest request for help to the best of my ability. And so when a man in our nation’s capital approached me one recent morning with a tale of hunger and woe, I offered him a meal. “All right, listen, I want a Chipotle burrito, all marinated chicken and rice,” he said, smoothly transforming me from philanthropist to personal assistant. “No beans in it, no way. Pinto beans on the side.” He raised an eyebrow to indicate how vital this separation was to my mission. “Lime salted chips with salsa — get those. Do they have orange smoothies?” I shrugged. If there was a Chipotle menu expert here, it wasn’t me. “Well, if they do, get me a large. If not, two Cokes.” I asked him to repeat his order so I could take notes. He sighed loudly.
No one said charity was easy, I suppose. Unfortunately, not only was Chipotle four blocks away, it was also closed. Desperate, I tried to re-create the order at a Subway: Large BBQ chicken sandwich, salt and vinegar chips, two Cokes. When I came back my temporary ward was not impressed. “Next time, before you buy, you ask… NIGGER!” he screamed, dumping the sandwich into the trash. “This is no good… NIGGER!” Such is the power of this epithet passersby began giving me disapproving looks for antagonizing a black man into using that word with a free $12 meal.
The trauma of this episode was fresh enough when a second hungry man approached me in Georgetown that I hesitated before traipsing into another Subway. With its ashen meatballs floating in a sea of mayo and olives, the bulging sandwich he ordered was about as appetizing as an exsanguinous corpse. But, like an exsanguinous corpse, I didn’t have to eat it, so I pulled out my wallet and asked the clearly nauseated Sandwich Artist to make it a value meal. To the mastermind of this hoagie atrocity, however, the request was sudden, inexplicable proof of a nefarious plot to deny him his rightful chips and soda. “Why you have to do me like that?” he growled at the Sandwich Artist, pulling a small battery powered radio out of his bag. He cranked the volume and began howling his own lyrics to the song that blared forth: “Subway! You steal from a man down on his luck! Subway! Now everyone knows how much you suck!”
By the time a third man outside a downtown CVS requested this brother spare a dime, the devil on my shoulder was affixing a massive cartoon padlock on the imaginary moneybags containing my charitable impulses. I strode on by, muttering to myself about ungrateful bastards and public scenes. Waiting in line, though, it occurred to me if I failed to engage my better angels now it might become a permanent condition. Reluctantly I purchased survival essentials, water and a variety box of doughnuts. When I offered these to the man back outside he patted a space beside him on a couch-like mound of carpet padding. I thought this was an invitation to sit. Instead, the mound heaved twice and flipped upright. Like a sculptor unveiling a bust, the man tugged at the fabric to reveal another man, bags weighing down the bags beneath his bloodshot eyes set in too-watery caverns. If this was an actor, he put Brando to shame.
Each took a doughnut and then the first man, carefully balancing a chocolate glazed on his knee, set the package in a pizza box next to a slice of cheese that looked as if it could chisel granite down at the quarry. “Keeps the sun off,” he explained, adding, “Tough going lately. God bless for this.” They had little other use for me, which was fine. I walked away believing this: There are those who cannot possibly be helped however hard we try. But we can help many more than we think possible if we do try.