Hustling for Loose Change

February 3rd, 2022

It was cold and windy yesterday as I drove west on Locust Street. Locust Street is a main thoroughfare on the north side of Milwaukee. On the eastern edge of town, near Lake Michigan and UWM, the street is bordered by big, old, well-kept homes. A couple miles to the west, the street is bordered by big, old, rundown homes. It doesn’t take long at all for the neighborhood to change radically for the worse. On the lakefront, the buildings belong to people with deep pockets. Further west, near 7th Street, the houses are inhabited by people who struggle to make ends meet.

Just to west of the 7th Street, Locust crosses over I-43. At the far end of the bridge is an onramp to the freeway. There is almost always a panhandler standing next to the traffic light at the entrance to the onramp. Even when the weather is bitterly cold, like it was yesterday, somebody is standing there trying to hustle some cash. It is never the same person at the light. Every time I drive to that onramp, I see somebody new. Sometimes it’s a black individual, sometimes the person is white. Sometimes I see a woman, sometimes a man. They might be dressed shabbily, or they might have decent clothes. The only common denominator is that the person always holds a cardboard sign with some kind of hastily scrawled message like: “Homeless. Need money”, or “Anything will help”.

Yesterday the person on duty was a young, white woman in a blue quilted coat. She had it bundled up all the way over her mouth and nose. Between her knit cap and the turned-up collar of her jacket, I could only make out her eyes.

The light at the on ramp had just turned red. I stopped and rolled down my window. I motioned to the girl to come closer to my car. I handed her a twenty, and I asked her,

“What’s your name?”

There was a muffled reply.

I said, “I couldn’t hear you. What’s your name again?”

She spoke more distinctly, “Amber.”

“Hi Amber. I’m Frank. Are you doing okay?”

She replied, “I’m fine.”

“Fine” can mean a lot of things. I was told once that “FINE” was an acronym for “Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Evasive”.

Amber pocketed the bill and told me, “Drive safely, and have a good evening.”

The light turned green, and I drove away.

As I merged into the freeway traffic, I thought about Amber. Why was she standing there? I know that she was trying to make some money, but there are easier ways to do that. I worked in the cold for years, and I know from experience that standing in an Arctic wind is not a good deal. She seemed like an intelligent young woman. Why was she panhandling in freezing weather?

Why does anybody stand by that traffic light to hustle loose change from surly commuters? It’s not a good gig. In the present economy a person can get a job almost instantly. Why not work steady?

When I give a person cash at that onramp, I always ask them their name, and how they are. I want to connect with them on a human level, even if it is only for a moment. Some of the panhandlers don’t care. Some of them light up like Christmas trees when I take the time to talk with them. A few of them ask me how I am. A few of them try to tell me their entire life story in the time it takes for the traffic light to change. Some just smile and give me their blessing.

I don’t know why Amber was there yesterday. I don’t know why any of those people were there on any given day. I try not to judge. Are some of them lazy? Probably. Are some of them addicts? Probably. Are some of them simply incapable of holding a job? I’m sure of that. I have met people who can’t stay employed no matter how hard they try.

I truly believe that none of these individuals wanted to be standing on that piece of concrete near the onramp. Nobody wants to do that. Each of them was there because of desperation. Somehow, they thought that begging strangers for money was the best, and perhaps, only choice left to them. All I know is that each panhandler was in need: in need of money, and in need of compassion.

I tried to give them a bit of both.

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