Meet a Beggar

December 12, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

I recently visited Chicago with my nine-year old daughter.  We stayed at an old hotel near the city center, just south of the Chicago River.  Though it was a high rent district, one of our neighbors worked as a beggar.

When the beggar first approached us on that wide sidewalk in front of Corner Bakery, my daughter was apprehensive.  He asked us for money and I flatly turned him down.  He grumbled something. 

I almost always reject requests for panhandling and I’m always troubled by my own behavior.  What if that person was legitimately in need, I usually wonder.  What if the beggar is mentally ill and he doesn’t really have the intellectual wherewithal to make the kinds of decisions necessary to improve his situation?  Though I don’t believe in the existence of any sentient God, another thought sometimes occurs to me:  what if God Himself actually does exist and He has taken the form of a beggar to test us, to see how we treat those who are less fortunate than us?

When my daughter and I returned to our hotel that night, the same fellow was still walking about, asking people for money.   When we saw him the next morning too, I decided to try to learn a few things about him.  I gave him two dollars and asked him if he would tell me a few things about himself.  He looked happy to meet someone who cared enough to listen.

Herman [not his real name] is 50 years old.  He used to work at an accounting firm, “sweeping up,” but claimed that he “couldn’t work anymore” because of a chronic leg injury.  He didn’t walk with any noticeable limp. Herman explained that he went through some “tough times” a few years ago, leading up to the deaths of his parents.  I asked him if he had tried to get a job recently.  He said that he simply “couldn’t.”  He told me that he was homeless. He allowed me to take his photo and he gave us the “thumbs up” as we parted ways (I’ve blurred out his face). 

                     beggar - blurred - lo rez.jpg

My daughter asked me why we spoke to the man.  I told her “because he is a human being and he has a story to tell.”

The following day, Herman waved hello to us, calling out “St. Louis!”  We chatted a bit more in the 25-degree weather.  Herman walks the Chicago sidewalks from 7 am to 7 pm every day.  He shakes a small Styrofoam cup at people twelve hours, every day, even in the frozen Chicago wind that causes many people to scurry to get inside.

Here’s the obvious question: Though Herman “couldn’t work,” he was willing to spend long hours every day not working—and doing it with dedication.  Why . . . why couldn’t he just use that same energy to work a real job?

    beggar - begging - lo rez.jpg

We spoke a few more times over my three-day stay in Chicago. During that short time, he changed from a potential threat to an acquaintance to both me and my daughter. 

Herman and I live in completely separate worlds, I’d like to believe.  Then again, Herman was out there again tonight, shaking his little cup at people while, 265 miles away, I wrote about him and found myself disturbed by his predicament.  But not disturbed enough to do anything about it.  There’s no moral to this story, I keep whispering to myself.

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Category: Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Several years ago, I happened to run into an aquaintence named Mike, who had joined the homeless population.

    Mike had been somewhat arrogant in his youth, and failed to appreciate anything he had.

    I had gone to the park to meet with some friends for a picnic, when he approached me, having recognised me from a time when we met a couple of years earlier. We got to talking, and he told me the story about how he ended up on the streets and finished it up by saying that he didn't know what to do. This is what I told him:

    "Pick up cans and sell them to the recyclers until you get enough change to buy a bottle of dish detergent, and a change of clothes from the goodwill store.

    Find a secluded spot on the river, and use the detergent to take a bath, wash your hair and clothes.

    Next go to 'ready labor' or any other day labor broker and take any job that you are physically capable of doing. When you get paid, put most of the money in a bank account.

    After you save enough to do so get a post office box and a voicemail number. Put in applications everywhere and uase the PO box for the address and the voice mail number for the ohone number. If you work hard and all goes well, you should be able to rent a small place before the weather turns cold."

    A few years later, I heard through a mutual friend that MIke was in a regular job at a local factory, and was engaged to be married.

    I think that many of the homeless are like Mike. They don't know how and are convinced that they can't change their situation, so they don't try.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Niklaus – terrific story. Truly wonderful outcome.

  3. Niklaus: I'm glad you told that story! I have always secretly wondered how I would handle it if I were to wake up one day and find myself homeless and destitute. My plan would be very similar to the one you describe and yet I hesitated to post it here for fear of seeming callous to those less fortunate. It's all too easy for me to sit here in my comfy chair with a warm cup of coffee by my side and say, "Ya know what I would do…"

    Erich: The problem with beggars in the big city is that they don't belong to anyone. Here in the "small town" suburb of Philadelphia where I live we have a "village" beggar.

    Big J is a crippled, nearly sightless young-ish man who sits at a ramshackle folding table every day and "sells" pretzels. It is a thinly disguised attempt to cover the fact that he is, in fact, begging because he sits just outside the health club that I belong to. Most of us make a point to stop every day and overpay him for his pretzels, even though we are all on low-carb diets and end up donating them to the coffee station in the gym for others less disciplined than ourselves. I'm sure his chosen location is no accident because it is hard to walk by him in his wheelchair, on our way to lifting weights or running around the jogging track, without feeling a daily pang of "There but for the grace of God…".

    My point is, it's harder to be a beggar in the city where no one knows you. Big J is not anonymous. He's not lazy. He's a neighbor in trouble and we all do what we can to help him.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    I think part of the problem we face as a people in America is that there has been a systematic breaking down of the awareness we have of others as profoundly related to us in a community.

    Erich and Nicklaus chose to acknowledge the fundemental relatedness of the people in their lives and made a difference. If each of us took the time to recognize that basic humanity which is in all of us and how we too suffer when others are in need and we do nothing, action may follow and we can restore a sense of community and relatedness which enriches all.

  5. There is this street paper that they sell here. The magazine deals with the issues of homeless people, but also includes articles about various social topics and is sold by themselves. The sellers receive 50% of the revenues. The issue I bought last week happened to have "courage" as its main theme. It seems that one the prominent issues of homeless people is finding the courage to commit themselves to permanent responsibilities, like renting a flat, signing a contract, opening an account. It's not only enough to know what is necessary to do, it also takes courage to give up what you are used to; facing the unknown and the fear that you might fail can be much harder than bearing the crappy life out on the street that you know at least.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Homelessness can be a catch-22: without a permanent address to put on a job application, homeless people can have a lot of trouble getting a 'real' job. Similarly, many lack appropriate clothing to wear for an interview; e.g., even basic laundry service is no doubt a challenge.

    Something else to remember…if an ad I once saw was true…is that a very large percentage of homeless people in America are children.

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