Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Shoe Cleaner Incident

On Wednesday, I visited my friend Paul. The day was pretty fun for the most part. We talked, walked around downtown aimlessly, had lunch, and went to Borders. After all that, we went to his place and hung out until he took me home later that night. I always enjoy catching up with my friends, especially since I don't see them that often. However, there was one incident during our day that made me think about a few things.

Paul and I were on our way to his place when a guy in front of us decided to approach us. The guy was a short, dark-skinned black man. He had a water bottle filled with some kind of cleaning solution, a little bag, and a shoe brush. I recognized that the guy probably wanted to clean our shoes for money. In fact, another guy was working the street with him. We passed the other guy as he talked with an older white man.

The guy tapped Paul and I on the shoulder and said hello. I didn't react but Paul immediately told the guy that if he touched him again "he'd lose his hand." For the record, Paul is a pretty big guy and was definitely taller and heavier than the man who approached us. However, the man would not give up. As we walked, he continued to walk next to Paul and tried to talk with him. He walked beside Paul for a while, crossing a crosswalk as we did. The man basically ignored me during the whole process.

The man kept messing with Paul and Paul told him that he would count to four before beating him up. Paul actually started counting as the man continued to walk with him. Eventually, we got very close to Paul's apartment building. As we got there, the man finally gave up...sort of. Paul and I were still walking when the man, clearly talking to me, said regarding Paul "Oh, so he a nigga hater, huh?" Paul then turned around and gave a response the man clearly wasn't expecting. He said "Yep, sure am," and then proceeded to give a salute before turning back around and heading toward his apartment building. I didn't see the man's face but I have to wonder what it looked like after hearing something like that.

As you probably have figured out, Paul is white. Paul isn't a racist, by the way. I've known him for more than five years, since my sophomore year in college, and we were roommates during my junior year. He's just the type who would take a racist comment like the man made to us and turn it around on him. That whole incident, though, had me thinking about all the times I've dealt with panhandlers and the like.

There are two things I've noticed when it comes to panhandlers. First, there are more of them in affluent and/or white areas than non-affluent and/or non-white areas. When I was at NU, I used to see them every time I went into downtown Evanston. There was even this one guy who rode a bicycle around downtown Evanston at night and harassed people for money. The other thing is that panhandlers seem to be the most aggressive with white people. Whenever I see a particularly aggressive panhandler, it's always when I'm walking with a white friend.

I've always wondered why panhandlers go more aggressively after white people. Is it because they think they'll have more money? Is it because they think they can guilt them or intimidate them to give them more money? Is it all of the above?

I'm not exactly the most intimidating black male on the planet, but no panhandler has ever been that aggressive with me. In fact, if I just acknowledge them and say I can't give them any money, they usually say thanks and leave me alone. Then again, I'm also a pretty generous person at times. When I've had spare change, I've given some money to the ones that looked like they needed it. I also have bought copies of StreetWise from vendors. StreetWise (site is outdated) is a local newspaper that is sold by homeless people. Most of the money from the sale of each issue goes to the person who sells it. Vendors that sell the paper always have a badge identifying them as such.

Normally, I would wrap up a blog entry like this with some pathetic attempt to be insightful or something like that. However, I don't think that's the best way for me to end this. I could probably sit here and type another few pages about how I see more hustlers (people trying to make living by selling legit and not-so-legit things) than panhandlers where I live or postulate on whether or not panhandlers are inevitable. I'm not going to do that. That's one big can of worms to open. Instead, I'm going to say that people much smarter than me have covered issues like this. In fact, I'm reading a book by Michael Eric Dyson, one of those people. Let's end it at that.

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