Don’t Feed the Bears

I rarely give money to panhandlers. I came of age in the mid-1970s when I finished college and moved to New York. That was another age of recession. New York was gritty and real and the streets of the Village, where I first lived with my actor friends, was filled with unmedicated mentally ill street people who would shout and scream at you. I mastered the no-eye-contact, strategic street crossing, and brisk walk as if I knew where I was going and was in a hurry to get there.
That has been my tactic ever since, but I have made exceptions. When I lived in D.C. I regularly gave money to a homeless guy I passed every morning who stationed himself outside a Caribou coffee shop on L Street. He had a lot of stuff around him in bags and suitcases, sat on them and held a styrofoam cup, which he would occasionally shake. He never even looked at you and if you gave him money, he would nod. I was impressed by his work ethic. He was always there in the morning, gone in the afternoon, every day, neither rain nor snow nor ice kept him from his appointed spot. I tried to imagine his life, puzzled over the territorial imperative of homeless men like him, how they kept interlopers away from what was a really prime location. The Caribou baristas gave him coffee that customers rejected for various reasons. If he wanted to go to the bathroom, he would approach the window, stand until they noticed him and nodded that it was all right for him to come in. Sitting on that corner was his job, he did it faithfully and with dignity, and he deserved his meager salary.
At that same Caribou Coffee, Jeff observed a fabulous moment of Christmas charity.

Then there’s Nashville, where any help to the homeless is met with furious reactions from the lowest level of mean-spirited shitheads. “As long as these bums are off the sidewalk and away from the working public and the responsible public any place they are put is fine with me. (As long as there is a fence around it),” one fine fellow responded to an article on homelessness.

In Nashville I am rarely even asked for money by homeless people downtown. Once a sad looking man approached me in the parking garage on Commerce Street and politely asked me for money. I had 75 cents in my pocket and I gave it to him and he blessed me. It was a profound moment. I felt uplifted, as if I had experienced the divine link between the mendicant monks in India and those who put food in their begging bowls.
All of these encounters with homeless people have made my life richer, but the business community, who launched this “Don’t Give” campaign, are hypersensitive to any tiny defect that might mar the image of glorious Nashville, things a city like New York, D.C., or LA would just expect people to get over. The police even harass the homeless people who sell The Contributor, which is a legitimate paper, reads as well as the daily paper, and on which homeless people work, and work hard.
And now this message: Don’t Give (it just encourages them).
How close that is to Feed a Bear/Kill a Bear (because bears who are habituated to human handouts have to be destroyed).

One thought on “Don’t Feed the Bears

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