On Panhandling, And Bumming Cigarettes


OK listen: I don’t panhandle. It is at once a very advanced and nuanced social art, and something I find kind of personally disgusting. I am sorry — I realize I will alienate a large, perhaps a majority, of the homeless population with that opinion, but it’s my opinion.

So but I am a smoker. I am almost 40, and since I was 25 I have smoked between half a pack and a pack, a whole pack, a day. I loooooove nicotine. It is my drug. Like how alcoholics have their booze and junkies have their junk–I have my cigarettes, and my Objective-C++ programming.

Every cigarette is like a love affair, and the end of every cigarette is like a Shakespearian tragedy.

So while I have managed to endure three homeless streaks in three different U.S. cities without having to resort to panhandling a single thin red cent, I have bummed innumerable cigarettes from all sorts of strangers all over the place. And, as a homeless guy, I am beset upon by endless other homeless guys ‘n’ gals who are artisan practitioners of the ways of panhandling.

And so even before I was necessarily immersed in the daily argot of busking, I knew the rules. I was born in Brooklyn, and I split my formative years between Kings County and Boston, Massachusetts—both urban centers where the logic of the basic human interactions behind bumming change or cadging a smoke (as it were) have been carefully scripted into a fairly formalized ettiquite—the aforementioned rules— that were implicitly understood.

I remember my Mom teaching me about how to deal with strangers on the street, and their imposing questions or exhortations, back in Brooklyn: you could interact and even reply to questions, but you were never to break your rapid New York stride, unless there was genuine need (i.e. someone who’d been in a car accident or somesuch). I remember her teaching me this very clearly, albiet nonverbally—it was a lesson reinforced over weeks and months of subway outings and park walks, but it was never something she stipulated explicitly.

The rules are like that—you learn them through induction, over the course of many interactions that iteratively train your observant neural wiring to understand.

These are the rules:

  1. If you ask for change, do so in a terse and readily understandable fashion — do not use some sort of long-winded ruse or subterfuge, just ask.
  2. If someone gives you change, say thank you, and leave them alone.
  3. If they don’t give you change, you may then ask to alternatively bum a cigarette.
  4. If your opening gambit was to bum a cigarette, you may not ask for change.
  5. Moreover, you must offer to buy the cigarette. In New York and Los Angeles, you must offer $1; it will not be accepted if the cigarette is given. In Baltimore, you must offer 50¢ which will, more often than not, be the expected tender.

These rules, like all rules, were made to be broken. These are those that I know well, but obviously there are many of my homeless bretheren who make a very good living outside the bounds of these pithy constraints. In Boston—a city of which I have not yet had the displeasure of calling myself a homeless resident—I recall many buskers on the MBTA making good coin by just sitting there with a change cup and some unusual combination of animals, like a cat sitting on a pig, or someshit, people ate that shit up and coughed up much change as proof. A common New York form of spectacle—one that dances up to the line of street performance—is for the busker in question to march down the eight-car length of a subway train, stopping in each car to pass a hat while running through a pre-rehearsed schpiel about how they are in fact homeless (and perhaps stricken with disease or other misfortune) and could you please help, anything you can give, God Bless.

I write down the rules here not to offer them as a prescriptive bromide to my fellow homeless—like I said, I don’t panhandle, so I can only describe how these things work from the other end. If you do panhandle, feel free to post a reply with your own sense of what the constraints are; and of course, break them whenever you need to. For me, I find that clinging to some sense of decorum while out on the streets was important to me—more important than the money I could have made if I were to cast that aside. It’s different for all of us.

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