September 5th, 2017
Every Wednesday evening, after I teach a citizenship class at Voces de la Frontera, I get on to I-94 at the on ramp at the corner of 5th Street and Lapham on Milwaukee’s south side. There is a traffic light at the intersection, and I always have to wait for a green light. It’s a gritty part of town, and it houses a mostly working class, Latino population. St. Stanislaus Church is a block away. Its twin, golden steeples glow in the twilight. The church is a reminder of years gone by, when this neighborhood was completely Polish, and somewhat more prosperous.
There used to be a sign on the light pole at the corner that said, “No Panhandling”. There has almost always been somebody standing directly under that sign, doing exactly that. Some person stands there and hustles loose change from the drivers waiting at the light. I have to admire the chutzpah, and somehow I enjoy the irony.
The hustlers come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe they take turns. Sometimes there is a woman there, sometimes a guy. They might be white or black or Latino. Young or old. That corner is only empty if the weather is truly terrible.
They always carry a cardboard sign. Always. I don’t think that people ever really look at what is scrawled across the cardboard. Usually, it says something like: “Homeless vet”. It probably doesn’t matter what is written there. Somebody could write: “Please help! I am a lost Klingon!”, and the effect would be the same. Personally, I would like to see a sign that says, “Need money for vodka.” The honesty would be refreshing.
I try to have some cash with me on Wednesday nights. I know that there are all sorts of excellent arguments against giving money to panhandlers. I just look at these people, and I see suffering. Begging for money on a dirty street corner is a lousy gig. I don’t know how these folks got there, but they are hurting. It’s that simple.
Last Wednesday there was young man on crutches on the corner. His left leg was in a cast that went from his foot to his knee. He looked rough. He hadn’t shaved for a while, and he had bruises on his face. However, he had his cardboard sign.
The light turned red just as I pulled up to the intersection. I called to the guy. He limped slowly over to my car. I pulled some singles out of my wallet. I put the money into his hand, and asked him his name.
“Chris”, he said. He was grimacing as he tried to walk with the crutches.
“How are you?” I asked. I already knew the answer to that.
“Not good at all, Man.”
“I got mugged last night. Some fucker hit me with a golf club. Then he broke into my car. He took my blankets and my clothes. Fuck. I got no place to stay now.” He didn’t look at me while he talked. He was staring into the distance.
A couple cars pulled behind me at the intersection. The light suddenly turned green.
“Hey, I got to go. Take care of yourself.”
He glanced at me. “Yeah, you too. Thanks.”
I shifted into first gear and took off.