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An Englishman In New York: Panhandling In New York

"If someone panhandling really looks hungry, and not just trying it on, they probably are. Have a heart, pull out a few quarters or a dollar bill, and hand it over. Youíll feel good for the rest of the day,'' says columnist David Thomasesson.

Americas twentieth century bank robber, the late Willie Sutton, is reputed to have answered ďbecause thatís where the money isĒ in response to why did he do it. Well, that must be why around certain blocks on the Upper East Side of New York, thereís a pretty passel of panhandlers, Ďcos thatís where the money is!

There are four or five of them all within that number of blocks. Unbelievable and more of them since the start of the Great Recession only a few years ago. On one block there were two on the same concrete bench asking for spare change, yes two. A double act, tag-teaming passers-by? One woman likes to smoke little cigarillos, and beg at the same time even. How sensible is that?

But hereís the thing, if you are going to panhandle at least look the part otherwise you really are suspect. For example, another young chap dressed in stylish black head to toe and a nicely trimmed beard, stands outside a deli asking for money for food. Iím not quite sure about him and Iíll tell you why. I saw him the other day walking quite fast down the street (his shift had finished?) and get this; he was looking at his watch. Heís begging for food money, not even a hint of any family to be provided for, and heís still wearing a watch! Who needs a watch anymore? Another patch to stakeout, a hot date at the soup kitchen perhaps? Who knows, but he was certainly stepping out smartly. But Iíve got his number, donít think I havenít. After all, thereís only so much pocket change to go around.

Then thereís the chap near the drug store, an itinerant we think. Never around in winter, he probably flyís south with the rest of the snow birds. Perhaps heís got a special gig outside the country club in Boca?

My last example hangs outside the local supermarket, short, gravelly-voiced, I wasnít sure about him either, but something changed my mind. His jacket looked a little too good, and then I saw him later at the prepared food counter, clearly he had amassed enough for what he wanted to buy. Passing close by I realized I was wrong; this man was in very poor health, thin spindly legs, and a pock-marked face. And the look of hunger on his face as he cast his eyes over all of the food laid out was something to behold. It made Oliver Twist and his request for more look like a cherubic angel slumming it in the workhouse, just to see how the poor people live.

So itís very simple, if someone panhandling really looks hungry, and not just trying it on, they probably are. Have a heart, pull out a few quarters or a dollar bill, and hand it over. Youíll feel good for the rest of the day.

Everything happens for a reason, but itís easy to see how a life can degenerate so quickly when out of work. Then itís a short hop from having an apartment, to begging for food, and end up living in a tent in Central Park, as happened in the Great Depression. Back in those dismal days, scores of men literally camped in the Park, building shanties and lean-tos. Known as Hoovervilles, such places sprung up all over America, so-named after the President who did little to boost the economy and provide a social safety net to help the homeless.

Today of course, there are assistance programs, but theyíre not open-ended. Perhaps FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency, or as some would have it, Flee Everyone and Move Away) could get involved, build regimented army-like bases, and provide three squares a day, hot and cold water in return for some public service requirement. These places could be named after current President Obama (or OíBama on his recent trip to the old country), except they would be known as Barackís!

And talking of tents, The New York Times recently reported that four ground-floor terrace suites at an Upper East Side boutique hotel can now offer a bit more privacy for those who want to sleep outdoors, and who doesnít?. Guests can sleep in tents, which can be pitched on the fenced-in rear patios. Sleeping bags are not available but, extra bedding is. Terrace suites start at $309; use of tents is $35. Imagine, paying for the room and a tent! Only in New York kids, only in New York.

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Do visit David's Web site http://www.britoninnewyork.com/

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