August 19, 2011


Almost every day I see some person standing by an exit ramp. Usually the person is young. Nine times out of ten the person is male. Nine times out of ten he is white. He holds a sign made of corrugated cardboard. Almost invariably it reads, “I will work for food.”

Some open their hearts, or their wallets at any rate, and hand the man a dollar or two and the requisite allotment of pity. Some hurl insults and accusations. Most pretend he isn’t there, and wait impatiently for the green light to release them from his presence. He’s a polarizing figure, this man with the sign. He gets on our nerves.

When I am in a rational frame of mind, as I do endeavor to be, I ask myself what I can actually know about a stranger based on a scruffy appearance and a sign. I cannot know much. I cannot know his personal history at a glance. I cannot know whether or not he has made an honest effort to find work. I cannot know whether or not he is a habitual panhandler or simply someone who has fallen on hard times. I can reasonably infer, though, that the purpose of the sign is more to elicit plain charity than to advertise a willingness to work for food. No one picks up strange men by the highway, takes them home to mow the yard, and gives them a can of beans in payment. People buy off their consciences with cash from the safety of their cars. Even if work were offered, certainly it must be more profitable to stand by the road holding a sign than to do some menial task for actual food. The sign, at least, is merely a clich̩ Рand almost certainly a lie.

There are, of course, few jobs to be had. Our country is not organized to assure that there are either jobs or dignity. There is much talk of these things, in high circles and in front of the camera, but people have been shed from the economy year after year, decade after decade. What remains is only a thin, fragile shell of professionals, nervously clinging to their jobs, and various detached elites who only shuffle paper and juggle numbers. For most of the rest, there has been the indignity of either public charity or Wal-Mart jobs. We have outsourced the making of things to others. A great nation has been traded for a credit bubble.

The panhandler is what America has produced. We will see more of him. He is the product of our collective ambition and complacency -- the delinquent offspring of our contempt and our self-satisfied generosity. We shrink from his image because he wakes us from our cultural conceit. We fear we might become him. A nameless artifact, standing by an exit ramp. Invisible. Despised. Unnecessary.


  1. This is the kind of writing I remember from you - evocative and rational at the same time.

    BTW, one of the great, great pleasures of Australia is never seeing panhandlers. Not entirely true; I did see a pair of scruffy young men in downtown Melbourne washing windshields for money. But they looked more like kids on a lark rather than chronic unemployed.

    For that, I am happy to live under a 47% top marginal rate.

  2. Not to say I don't enjoy the philosophical posts! Just that they don't have that "painting" feeling. :)