Feeding Philly’s Panhandlers: Can Beggars Be Choosers?

Homelessness in Center City raises tough questions for guilty liberals like me

I was walking in Center City last Thursday with a chicken BLT in a doggie bag. I also had my computer and my purse and was feeling generally overburdened. Of all my belongings, I most resented the doggie bag’s incursion into my freedom of movement.

When the waiter had asked if I’d like to have my food wrapped up, I’d said yes—because saying no would imply I take the world’s resources for granted, and that I’m a spoiled child who believes food to be superfluous if I don’t want to consume it immediately. I’m a classic guilty liberal; I may not want the sandwich, but I’ll be goddamned if anyone is going to see me leave food behind like a frickin’ princess.

Years ago, I might have thrown the food away, but that was before An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar. Now I can’t imagine throwing food out. But when faced with the doggie-bag dilemma, I haven’t been above “donating” the food to the universe. Which is to say I’ve left the bag on top of a closed trashcan or on a planter—somewhere a needy person might spot it. It’s not like handing someone food personally, but if you have social anxiety issues, as I do, it’s a hell of a lot easier.

Some people, I’ve noticed, bestow their doggie bags directly. They bend down and present the grimy package as though it’s a solid-gold Buddha encrusted with diamonds. Their expression says, “Here is the food I didn’t want. You may have it. No, I’m not Mother Teresa, but a lot of people make that mistake.”

Human interaction makes me itchy, but it’s more reliable than a planter outside the Union League. Last Thursday, a panhandler on the next block seemed like a good opportunity to proffer my food directly. I’d give him my doggie bag; he’d be grateful, and I’d have less to carry.

He was an older man holding out a black baseball cap. There was a metal cane next to him. I leaned down and presented the bag. “You want a sandwich?”

“What kind?” he asked.

“Chicken,” I said.

He looked dubious. “Chicken and what?”

“Bacon and … ”

Before I could get “lettuce and tomato” out, he took the package with a smile. Wow, I thought. The bacon really sold it.

I didn’t mull over the encounter much, but sometimes you don’t realize you’re thinking something until you hear a little snippet of your own thoughts, the way you catch a fragment of a song from a passing car. What I realized I was thinking was this: “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Was I mildly annoyed because the panhandler had asked for details about the sandwich before he took it? Yes. Did I have a right to be?

I thought it over and came to this conclusion: Just because someone’s life isn’t going the way they intended—whether due to job loss, addiction, stupidity or venality—they still have preferences. Disliking chicken, being partial to bacon—they seem incidental until they’re all you have left.

Having lived on the margins myself, I understand that what you cling to for your sense of self isn’t necessarily poetic. But it’s what you’ve got to work with. Even in my darkest times, my favorite color was blue. No one could change that, even when everything else was in flux. Blue was mine.

The reality, of course, is that beggars can be choosers. They should be choosers. Maybe the man with my chicken BLT threw the chicken out and only ate the bacon. Who knows? At any rate, it was up to him.