From 1999 to 2010 I worked at Hamilton County Job and Family Services. Walking to the brick building on 222 E. Central Parkway every morning was always interesting. But walking through downtown Cincinnati is always interesting. I used to get approached by beggars, women claiming they needed money for diapers, people asking me to sign a petition, or mentally challenged people speaking to me as if we were old friends. The following story is based on my experience with a panhandler who had recently left jail.
Minutes after leaving my car, a haggard man hastily approached me on Sycamore Avenue in Over-the-Rhine (OTR). He had a frayed beard and scraggly hair. He wore ripped jeans and a shirt covered with nothing but dirt and holes. Most likely, his clothes came from either a garbage can or second hand store. I am sure he hadn’t seen a barber or a bathtub in a while.
The haggard man wore the stench of stale alcohol and made me nauseous. In OTR, panhandlers are everywhere. But they usually wait until daylight before seeking handouts. This panhandler approached me while it was still dark outside.
He made me nervous.
And it was too early for me to deal with him without any coffee.
“Where in the hell did I go wrong?” he asked no one in particular. Instead of avoiding him, I listened to him unleash the demons that had taken away his dignity.
Without any success, the panhandler had tried to sleep off his hunger in some filthy alley. He said he used to have a wife and child. But he had lost contact with them. He blamed his self-imposed exile on the contents of a bottle.
But he would return to his family—someday.
Just not today.
And without an address or clean change of clothes, he couldn’t secure employment. The man didn’t have many options. He was limited to begging for food and raiding garbage cans.
His pride kept him away from the homeless shelters. He also didn’t like the crowd that frequented homeless shelters. Besides, the last time he stayed at a shelter, someone stole his shoes and his watch.
Several days ago, his empty stomach sent him seeking food. He had asked for spare change from an elderly man who had just left a drugstore.
“Excuse me sir, can I have some change for something to eat?”
“Hell no,” said the cantankerous elderly man.
“Sir, I cannot even remember when I last ate.”
“Not my problem,” said the elderly man. “Get yourself a job you bum!”
The elderly man turned his back and stormed off.
The panhandler soon found himself inside a small mini-mart. Within seconds an angry store clerk approached the panhandler.
“You smell terrible, if you ain’t got money, you better get out of my store!”
“Don’t worry, I have a few dollars.”
The store clerk followed the panhandler through the store. The site of fruit and bags of chips became too tempting. The homeless man began eating fruit and opened a bag of chips.
“You better have four dollars,” said the angry store clerk.
“I’m sorry, I am really hungry and have no money.”
“Well, I am going to call the cops because I am not a charity,” said the store clerk.
After a short wait, a Cincinnati police officer arrived to make the arrest. The panhandler had a day to think about his crime before a judge sent him back onto the streets.
The dejected man said he would return home—someday.
Just not today.
After listening to the panhandler’s story for a few minutes, I realized that he had no intention of robbing me. I told him I needed to step away because I had to get to work. I was courteous to him. He may have been down on his luck, but he was still a person.
He began to dig into his pockets and pulled out some lint and loose change. I realized he didn’t have enough money to buy a sandwich or even a cup of coffee.
“Man, I haven’t had nothing to eat in a while. I sure wish I had enough money to buy lunch at KFC.”
“What’s a chicken meal cost at KFC?” I asked.
“I think I could get something with $4.”
Without thinking, I opened my wallet and gave him my singles. “This should be enough to get you some chicken,” I said.
I don’t know what he did with the money. He did look hungry. I remember hoping that he had given his money to Colonel Sanders and not to Jack Daniels.
Marc is a grandparent and longtime resident of Clermont County. Visit his author page Life with Grandpa and he also just wrote Just Bite Me: A Guide to Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Walking Nightmares, which is available on Amazon.com.