There seemed to be more panhandlers than ever on a trip to Chicago this
spring. Especially along Michigan Avenue south of the river it was like
running a gauntlet, with needy faces floating up like balloons from
hoodies and ear-flap hats every 100 yards or so along the sidewalk.
Can you spare me something? Im hungry... God bless you, have a good day...
Its not long before you find yourself avoiding eye contact. Im not
averse to giving money to street people, but theyve got to have an
obvious mental disability or missing a limb to qualify, and some of the
people we saw on Michigan Ave. looked like pros or anemic junkies. One
seemed to be reporting to a sharp-dressed man in a new BMW -- either the
driver was the nicest Good Samaritan in the world, hailing a beggar to
make a hand-out on his way to the office, or he was running a string of
spare-changers, like his counterparts in the Mumbai Mafia.
Beggar is a dehumanizing word; panhandler has a friendlier
connotation. But theyre both one-size-fits-all terms and it makes you
wonder, at what bitter end does a human being cross the line of abject
humiliation to beg?
And at what point does someone use a child or a baby as a sympathy prop,
as also seems to be common in the Windy City?
Even dishwashing jobs must be few and far between at the lower depths of
society, and then there are factors such as drug addiction, mental
illness, and your garden variety of social ineptness or hostility that
bars the door to landing a job.
Still, its quite surrealistic observing all of the high-stepping beauties
and manicured suits marching up and down past billions of dollars of
investment along the Miracle Mile, straight-arming that growing army of
I thought of heading over to McDonalds and buying some $1 coupons to hand
out, having read somewhere that this is what good liberals do in lieu of
contributing to a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. But McDonalds was a mile away
and it struck me that this might be a bit like buying duck food at the
Closer to home, there seem to be more gypsy ramblers in town this year,
their faces burned reddish-black from frostbite and sleeping out over the
winter. Theyve become a familiar sight on residential streets, passing
meekly by on their old bikes or towing their carts, trying not to get
You find the homeless in odd places. Riding the bike trail near Oryana
Food Coop, I found an old man sleeping in the weeds, a birds nest of
ragged white hair sprouting from his Army coat and his face as red and
waxy as a pickled crab apple from chronic alcoholism. He could be
stretchered into the food coop and given a carrot juice infusion, a
full-body massage and the holistic works, like in an ayurvedic, organic
ICU unit; but would it make a difference for more than a day? Chances are
this mans whole life needs to be reeled back to the beginning and ladled
with the chicken soup of love from an early age.
There are several hobo camps in and around Traverse City -- one reputedly
quite large -- but, as is the case in Chicago, there arent enough
resources in this recession to weave a safety net for everyone. Even the
Goodwill Inn -- which does heroic work taking in homeless families --
requires its guests to search for a job each day, but that seems well
beyond the ability of some of the folks you see camping in the bushes
Not everyone is a vagrant. A local artist spent the entire winter in
an unheated cottage without electricity or running water. She was
fortunate to have an outhouse and an old wreck of a car to work a few
part-time gigs. Getting through the winter meant hauling jugs of water
home to wash up with or camping on someones couch when the temperature
went beneath bearable.
Then theres the price of gas. Few places in America seem to have more
people driving around in monster trucks and SUVs than Northern
Michigan. We got a taste of the gas crisis in 2008, but counted our
Cherokees and Silverados as being too dear to give up before $4 gas
came around again.
Last week, the gauge passed the $63 mark while I was filling up my
15-gallon tank at a gas station out in the boondocks -- a shocker. How do
people afford to pay for gas on the huge trucks you see everywhere? I
wondered. Theyre shelling out more than $100 a tank.
The guy at the head of the line dressed like an extra from My Name is Earl
asked for a tin of chewing tobacco as he paid for his gas. Then the next
guy did the same, and incredibly the third guy as well. There was a whole
wall full of chew at the station: Red Man, Grizzly, Kodiak, Husky... I
think it was six bucks a can.
It seemed strange that anyone would hang on to such an expensive,
low-class habit at a time when gasoline is $4.20 a gallon. But perhaps
when times get tough, small pleasures such as a plug of chewing tobacco
seem all the more comforting. Perhaps all the more important.
That night, I dreamed that I was camping on the moon with dozens of
friends and hundreds of others. Our tents were spread out in the silky
dust of lunar craters and the brilliant glare of the sun lit everything in
a stark diamond-gray. Everyone was smiling, laughing and having the time
of their lives camping on the moon, but I had a terrible feeling that I
was going to have to tell them that we might not make it...
I woke up realizing that my dream was a child of anxiety tied to that
moment in the gas station, wondering whats going to happen if and when
things get even crazier?
A lot of people seem to feel that way these days. So it‘s welcome news
that the price of gas is predicted to go down .75 cents by this summer,
and that more jobs are trickling into the economy as the ice of this
recession begins to crack. But it all seems to be happening far slower
than we might wish.