Demetria Martinez on Panhandling

Those of us who give spare change on the streets are often chided, told that a lot of “those people” don’t want to work. To be honest, that’s fine by me. Our nation is full of able-bodied people who don’t want to work either–they just lie about it and trudge away at jobs they hate in order to consume products they don’t need.

So opines Demetria Martinez in her essay “No, I Didn’t Give at the Office.” She is speaking to and for me, an inveterate, unregenerate sidewalk hander-outer of dollar bills. And you know, not only do a lot of us who work wish we didn’t, I don’t even really believe that a lot of the homeless are shirkers. I think of the woman who offered to pump gas into the moving truck just after I arrived in Washington, DC. She didn’t request money, and when I inquired how much would be appropriate recompense for her services, she said, “Whatever you think.” This was not the behavior of a woman who felt entitled to a handout, nor the behavior of someone who didn’t want to work; she was hanging around the fumes of a dirty inner-city gas station in the heat of June, offering a small service with no expectation of payment. I think too of those folks who rush out into traffic with a bottle and squeegee, hoping for $1 in return for washing your windshield, or the folks who sell the newspaper of the antihomelessness movement in DC, standing on the sidewalk in all weathers, getting ignored by most people who pass by. These aren’t people who don’t want to work; they’re people who, for whatever reason, don’t have the resources to work in the way this society expects. They don’t have a permanent address or a shower or a business wardrobe or shiny white teeth. Maybe they can’t read or add or speak English. But to dismiss them as lazy layabouts is to ignore that most of us are a paycheck or less away from being in their worn-out secondhand shoes.

I nearly veered off the road when a leftist friend said he didn’t give handouts because a lot of homeless men at day’s end pool their money to purchase alcohol. Hello? What is it we of the middle class do at birthday parties, restaurants, first dates, potlucks, you name it?…It seems to me that whatever someone does with his or her handout is that person’s business. It’s one point of dignity in an otherwise hellish situation. No homeless person owes me a grant application for my generous endowment, detailing a breakdown of expenditures.

Happy hour, anyone? This reminded me of the extremely personable gentleman who asked me for money outside a liquor store on Columbia Street in Northwest DC. Before I even had a chance to respond, he hastened to assure me that he wasn’t “gonna buy booze with it.” As I gave him a dollar, I said, “Well, you know, if that’s what gets you through the day, that’s okay by me.” I don’t know if I have ever seen a human face transform in such a heartbreaking way as that man’s did in that moment. He grabbed my hand in his calloused, horny fingers, beamed, and gushed. I didn’t feel I deserved such gratitude, but I did appreciate the moment of genuine connection. In a way, I guess I feel some sort of kinship with homeless people, because they are separated from the rest of us on the street, alienated from “normal” people, in a way that’s similar to how I am treated as a fat person. “Normal” people usually look through me as well. So to give money, and to give it directly, looking the person in the face and speaking to them, rather than thrusting it at them while averting my eyes, soothes that place inside me that wishes more people would treat me with the same kind of respect and recognition. And, as Martinez says, “…my money doesn’t belong to me in the first place. The very jargon of charity blinds us. We imagine we are doing a favor rather than giving what is owed.” If I am doing a favor, it is the favor of being willing to see the person in need and to appreciate their giving me “all he or she has left: a ‘thank-you’ or ‘God bless you’.” It is the favor of returning a bit of humanity to the street culture of this country, because, as Martinez says, “The homeless, be they thieves or bodhisattvas, tell the truth about our society: We’d rather throw people in the streets or in prison than exercise a modicum of political will to meet basic human needs.”

All quotes from “No, I Didn’t Give at the Office” (1998) by Demetria Martinez, in Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005).


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