Realm Of Randomness

July 24, 2007

A 2$ lesson on Pan-handlers

Filed under: Opinion,Racism,Rant — Randomizer @ 12:46 am

For most of the non-US readers of this blog, the term ‘Pan-handler’ must seem odd. Well, that’s understandable, because this is the United States – where Strip clubs are Gentlemen’s clubs, illegal immigrants are undocumented aliens, toilets are restrooms, and beggars are – ‘Pan handlers’, because they pan-handle, or hand you a ‘pan’ to collect money.


I’ve been approached by Pan-handlers pretty rarely, compared to India, and of course, these guys are much much better off than their Indian counterparts in terms of lifestyle, clothing and options … however they are that much harder to ignore.

Incident #1

I was approached by a pretty healthy looking, 20- something African-american male in Houston Downtown once, last year. He got right to the point, saying ‘Hey, could I please have a dollar?’ . Being the first time I was ever solicited by an ‘American beggar’, I was slightly confused and did what I usually do in India – just ignored him and walked into a store. The fellow followed me into the store, and I tried to ignore him again. Finally the guy goes,

‘Hey, don’t act like I don’t exist, man’

I was pretty shaken by that, but I immediately told him I don’t have any money and he left me alone. I thought to myself, This ain’t India. Learn the new rules.

Incident #2

Two weeks ago, I was walking towards my lab and a healthy looking, 30-something white male in very decent clothes approaches me and says ‘My car ran out of gas, and I lost my wallet … I haven’t been able to get any help from the police… could you please spare me some money for gas?’ .

Being very inexperienced with the ways of the American poor, I really didn’t know whether to believe him and be a ‘good samaritan’ or move on. More so, most of the American poor I’ve seen so far haven’t been Caucasian. Once again, I had a classic Racism vs Statistics mini-debate going on in my head about this guy’s credibility based on my personal observation that being White significantly reduced the probability that he was poor/homeless…. and if he spoke so well, had all the manners, and didn’t have the society’s prejudice stacked against him, why the hell doesn’t he have a job ?

Luckily for me though, I didn’t have any cash on me, so moving on was fairly easy. He thanked me and went away…

Incident #3

Just last weekend, as me and a friend were walking to our car in Houston at about 11.30pm in the night, we heard a familiar ‘Excuse me sir! Excuse me… could I please have a minute?’ request from a short, decently dressed, African American man. Seemingly polite, he went on to say,

‘I just need some help. I’m not a homeless guy… I just need some help’

I was urged to move on, but I felt bad about walking away. Besides, just because he’s colored doesn’t mean he’s homeless… Stop being racist, I thought. So I stopped and engaged. He goes , ‘I live in ___ part of Houston, and I’m just trying to get home. If I use the MetroRail I’ll get a 75$ fine without a ticket, could you please spare me 2$ to buy a ticket home ? God bless you sir! ‘
This time though, I knew I had loose change in my wallet… and even though I knew he was a panhandler who successfully engaged me in a conversation, I was a little afraid of pissing him off and hated the thought of him harassing us by following us around at this time of night. I had an ‘Oh well, what the heck’ moment and handed him his 2$. We felt bad for a while afterward that he successfully got our money, but decided that our lesson on Panhandlers costed us 2$ and it better have taught us something.

So here are the results of my little research, after going through many articles on the internet. Note that this is NOT about the poor are who are really in need – like the crippled/the old/the abandoned – this is about those bums who Choose to panhandle as a living because it is lucrative , and not because they are forced to :

  • ‘Need money for gas’ , ‘Need money to get home’, ‘Got a dollar?’ are very standard pick-up lines. Apparently, all the incidents above were standard panhandling incidents…with not even a trace of genuineness
  • NEVER engage. If he/she isn’t in your way, act like you didn’t see them. Avoid eye contact at all costs. KEEP walking!
  • If confronted, have a standard reply, ‘Sorry can’t help you’ , ‘Sorry don’t have any money’ and Move on.
  • Do NOT take out your wallet. They are just looking to see if you have cash.. and if you do, this encounter could end up as a full-fledged mugging. Though in incident #3 I thought I was appeasing him by giving him what he wanted, things could have turned out much, much worse
  • American panhandlers are extremely smooth talkers, and often extremely creative. They earn money out of guilt-tripping generous people, and it often pays more than minimum wage…. Doing no work and getting paid more than flipping burgers? Sounds like a great career to most of them
  • They take advantage of our lack of being able to say NO to speak to someone. Maybe it is just my observation but I somehow feel that us desis have a very hard time saying No to Americans. How many of my Hindu friends got caught up in religious decisions with Mormons, Baptists and what not ! There’s a Mormon bible lying at home from one such incident where my roommate found it too hard to refuse. Though it seems rude, SAY NO. Walk away !

Thanks to these bums, the line between a genuine case and an outright beggar has become fuzzy. Thanks to these bums, the people who really need help are going to be faced with colder, less generous pedestrians like the one I’m becoming. And for all us Desis, learn the new rules. No more beggars in rags , No more extreme poverty. A new game is being played and it starts with an ‘Excuse me, could I please have a minute?’. I hope that my 2$ lesson gives you a head start !



  1. I truly wish your ‘$2 lesson’ had come six months earlier, but reading your recent post did make me happy that I’m not the only benevolent soul around even if in the end we did get conned…

    On our recent trip to Portugal, my better half and I were returning to our hotel after dinner and a few drinks. Now knowing that the Barrio can be a particularly dangerous place at night, what with the poorly lit back streets, the numerous warnings about late night muggings and it being the ‘artistic’ quarter of Lisboa, we decided to cut across to the main road and walk back in the safety of the street lights. Yes maybe walking around after midnight isn’t the smartest thing to do, especially in a new city, but we love to walk around when we’re touring… anyways… about 10 minutes away from the hotel a light shower starts and we pick up our pace. The streets go deserted almost immediately with just the occasional car/bus passing us by… but we weren’t really worried. While crossing one of the by lanes a well dressed ‘gentleman’ walking in the opposite direction walks up to us with pretty much the same phrase ‘Hello, excuse me, could I have a minute’. Now I don’t know whether it was just our innate nature as desis or the wine (I like to think it was the wine) but we decided to stop and see what this ‘poor’ soul wanted.

    He was well dressed in a crisp white shirt, a tan pull over and a great bit overcoat. He didn’t seem the least bit threatening and while his demeanour on the whole was pleasant there was just this feeling in the gut that there was something off about him… he was completely flustered and he starts to narrate his story – he said he was visiting from Canada and his luggage got stolen… he had been with the cops the entire day and had just gotten out from the station… he didn’t know what to do and had managed to contact his bank back home to cancel his credit cards…(nope we didn’t think to ask where he got the money to call home… probably called collect)… anyways he now needed money to catch a train to go to the airport where someone would wire him money to get back home… he then added ‘I know how unbelievable this might sound, but I really am in trouble and I need some help… I’d appreciate it if you could give me some money… anything at all’

    While my wonderfully smart and ‘usually gullible’ mate tells me in Hindi ‘don’t give him anything, I bet he’s a bum’, all I’m thinking is (reminiscent of Jerry Maguire) ‘You had me at Hello’… yep I emptied my pockets for this guy – not that there was much there, just 3 euros but hell that’s quite a bit for a bum…

    Now I know all of you’re thinking he just might have been a genuinely broke/mugged Canadian and that’s what I was thinking all through till the next morning… of course my better half was thinking what an idiot I was the entire time, but nevertheless… the next morning while walking to the shopping area, we happened to see our friend again… this time without his over coat, new pull over and shirt… spick and span as ever… he was soliciting some white couple when we passed him… he saw us giving him a look, and he pretended not to have remembered us…

    Yes I felt like a fool… but I still give money to beggars and I have just one rule – don’t give the healthy ones anything… if they are fit enough to work for their living, they don’t deserve a handout… unless of course they’re from Canada ;)

    As for your experience, all I have to say is don’t kick yourself for having made a mistake, apparently a lot of us are generous(ly stupid) and well you did it with a good intention, so it shouldn’t matter whether he was a genuine ‘beggar’ or just another con artist that got the better of you – at least he’s good at *something*!

    Comment by Luciferratic — July 25, 2007 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

  2. Nice to read your story :) … Man, didn’t know the ways of these con artists were so ‘global’ in nature ! In my case as well, i was urged to move on just like ur better half advised you, but I fell for it , fair and square … :P

    I’m generally inconsistent about handing out to beggars… at some times I feel my generosity is the only reason they aren’t pursuing employment .. at other times I really feel sorry and just give in… i guess the only philosophy i’ve had so far is to never give money to a beggar who irritates you. so all those people who cling on to you or run behind you, i never give them anything. I wish things were that simple, as to choose between who looks the more pitiable…

    unforunately these ‘con artists’ are making the choice even harder than that … now we gotta choose between not only pitiable and non-pitiable, but genuine and fake !

    There was a con artist we fell for in India too, but man, he should have received an Oscar for his stunning performance …

    This poor looking guy … He falls flat right in front of our gate, has this sort of ‘seizure’ ! Shaking all over on the ground … his leg is apparently stuck in a cramp… and when we go to help him , he looked terribly sick … had some white foam sort of stuff in his mouth … we obviously totally freaked out. Called the neighbours, etc … generally had the whole surrounding area worried about him .. his seizure then stops after 5-10 minutes .. and he gets up after we offer him water and he drinks and all that. And then as he is leaving he tells us a story in the tune of ‘i know i’m sick but i don’t have money for medicine ‘ …

    … obviously in the panic of the moment, he ended the day with at least 50 rupees from us and our neighbours.

    The next week we heard that our epileptic friend has been falling in front of peoples’ gates all over the neighbourhood ! :D

    You just gotta love ’em !

    Comment by Randomizer — July 26, 2007 @ 4:35 am | Reply

  3. WOW… yes I’m sure the conman from your incident deserved an Oscar… or at least an IIFA award…

    And, yes, I myself didn’t think conmen around the world operated similarly, but now that you’ve broached the topic I do remember a similar incident occurring to me while studying in Bombay and at that time I had the sense to just ignore the person and walk away. This happened at the train station and I did see the same man there on several occasions. I guess the station was a great ‘platform’ for him to tout his trade.

    You say that beggars that you give to have to meet only one requirement, i.e., not to hound you, I have to say that you wouldn’t feel the same way had the beggars been Chukkas/Hijras(‘Third sex people’ commonly (erroneously) labeled Eunuchs) from India. Having lived in Bombay for four years I’ve have numerous experiences with them and have to add that they are a very enterprising lot.

    I used to live in Bandra and used to make it a point to visit me mum’s sister in Kurla at least once a month. This trip used to get me all jittery as I knew to get to Kurla I’d have to get through an intersection at which there is an army of these chukks…as most desis know, Hijras like to threaten their ‘prey’ in several ways. (i) They threaten to lift up their saris in order to show you their genitals (or a lack thereof), (ii) they cough up sputum and threaten to spit it on you (iii) they start to touch you and caress you (iv) they curse you and I don’t mean they say F**K off… I mean it in the bad luck sort of way and this really works for a lot of the superstitious types because they believe that a curse from a chukka brings truly bad luck (this is the reason they are usually called for weddings and naming ceremonies to dance and ‘bless’ the couple or the baby!!). There are probably a lot of other things they do to harass people but I’ve been faced with each of these and some more and well you really don’t want to be at the receiving end of any except for the curses (if like me you’re not superstitious)…

    Anyways the chukkas at this intersection had created a very simple operating procedure and trust me it worked – they would come up to your rickshaw and ask for just ONE rupee. One rupee is something that anyone traveling in a rickshaw could easily do without and who’d want to put up with these people for just one rupee? And I started to notice that every time I’d stop at that intersection everyone would shell out *at least* one Rupee! The signal lasted just under a minute and there was at least one Chakka working each end of the intersection – amazing organization. I also started to count how many rickshaws on average would be at my end of the intersection whenever you had to stop and even at off-peak times you would see at least 10-15 rickshaws from each direction! This means in an hour they could easily collect between Rs 1,000/- and 1,500/-. If they worked a 5 hour day, that means Rs 5,000/- by the end of the day. An average working month of 22 days (they wouldn’t work weekends – not worth it I guess), they’d make over 1 lakh… 1 lakh split 4 ways is still more than what most people earn at the BPOs…Besides what do they need 25,000 for? If they had a union and worked as an organized unit and with the right staffing, they’d make millions by just taking on the busy intersections in the suburbs…

    Yes I’m mental, but I used to calculate these things sitting in the rickshaw on the way to me aunts house.

    Now going back to being harassed by this lot, we’ve actually had chukkas walk up to us on the street and demand money and I’ll never forget this incident because they were actually very friendly on that particular day. Two of my friends and I were walking around in town (Churchgate) and three chukkas came up to us asking for money. We said no politely and moved on, but they kept following us. Now, normally we’d just give them 5-10 rupees and be done with them, but one of my friends happens to be a particularly tightfisted *sshole… and he insisted that we don’t give them anything… and so we walked and they walked with us and after sometime they put their arms around our shoulders and we kept walking like this for well over 10 minutes! And all the while they were talking and joking with us as if we were really good friends. Imagine all the people around us were wondering what we were up to. In the end they got tired and left us with some curse – the curse probably worked – I’m married, one of the other friends is on his way to the guillotine as well…

    While chukkas can be annoying, you have to give them credit for their resilience despite being outcasts. I had watched a documentary on the Discovery channel not so long ago about them and their lives and most of them are actually born normal, either being effeminate men or macho women. Shockingly a majority of them are from South India (Tamil Nadu in particular) and they are outcasts from the time they are teenagers and start to display traits that don’t suit their sexuality. They end up coming to Bombay in search of acceptance. Living in the slums they all go through an initiation process when they reach adulthood and it is at this point that they undergo surgical castration – some survive while others dont. Besides their sexual dismemberment, they actually live fairly normal lives, with their own social circles, their own pecking order and live off of handouts or by working as dancers at special occasions.

    So yes, I’d have to add chukkas to the list of ‘beggars’ that I’d give a hand out to… they are after all psychologically crippled.

    Comment by Luciferratic — July 26, 2007 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  4. A few comments on your story

    – Firstly, I’m surprised that Eunuch is an erroneous translation of hijra ! A Eunuch is apparently a castrated man . Anyways, ‘Transgender’ is the term we are looking for here :) .

    – Interesting observation about the earnings … I’m wondering, if they’re so rich, why do they still stick to the slums ? Is it just because of the society’s prejudice ? It must be.

    – It is disgusting to hear the lengths they’d go to, to harass passers-by and passengers in rickshaws, to earn their living. Thankfully I haven’t yet experienced them … and I’m sure I would shell out the dough sooner than ever in their cases! I’m sure I would make an exception to my ‘rules’ to save myself from being flashed or spat on !

    – The scene with them walking with the two of you must have made a hilarious scene ! Wish we had it taped :D

    And finally, yeah its terrible .. and yeah its disgusting … but so is the way they are treated in society by the rest of us. They are basically making Society eat their own dirt … and that is frankly, pretty brilliant ! Society made them the lowest of the low … and this is their way of saying, ‘hey, you put us here, now we’d like to get paid for it!’

    Comment by Randomizer — July 27, 2007 @ 5:41 am | Reply

  5. Yep, Eunuchs are castrated men, but the terms is historically associated with the castrated men that worked as harem guards or attendants… I guess since harems aren’t as popular as before we could extend the use of the word to just plain ol’ castrated men…

    About transgender… well I’m still not sure whether you can call them transgender/transsexual as being a tranny implies you want to be of the opposite sex, but in Hijras I think over time they have come to believe in a unique sex of their own… basically they’re on the fence is what I’ve come to understand of them.

    As for the earnings, yeah shocker when you think of it and the intersection I was talking about was/is not as busy as many others that they can use. As for why they live the way they do, I think it will take at least another 50 years before Indian society gets used to trannys or whatever you call them. They are social outcasts and well as you said I think all they’re trying to do is get back at us. Would you move into a building knowing that you’re gonna have at least one chukka staying next door? Even if that chukka were earning a lakh each month, you would still think less of them. The issue isn’t money, it is (to put it bluntly) the way they look and behave. I believe even if they were sophisticated and tried to live a normal life we wouldn’t let them. What’s shocking is just across the Indian Ocean in Thailand similar chukkas are called lady boys and they go to great lengths to look beautiful through plastic surgery and you can never tell the difference! In fact most of them look better than your average girl next door and are even given more importance. They are socially accepted and hold good jobs as entertainers (I mean singers, dancers, etc). The most popular cabaret show in Bangkok has a lady boy as the lead.

    I’m not saying that they all are treated well… most of the red light areas are populated by lady boys, almost all the peep and s*x shows are done by lady boys, but I have yet to find one that begged for a living…

    Oh yeah one last thing, for some reason even in Thailand there is a superstition associated with lady boys, just like in India?!?

    Ok, I’m sorry I detracted from the original post about beggars… will try not to do that in the future.

    Comment by Luciferratic — July 27, 2007 @ 12:00 pm | Reply

  6. Interesting post.. so what if i take 2 weeks to reply?.. :P

    I would like to take this opportunity to say… I doubt desis are more gullible here than regular whites… Living in India, we have *constantly* shooed away 5yr old kids in rags… (americans visiting south asia cannot help but shell out money).. You’d think we’d be much more thick-skinned… Also I’d say that americans feel much more guilty about being rude than us desis who weren’t brought up to be as outwardly polite as americans are.
    but yes it definitely is harder for us to say No.. (My apartment in north carolina had a Mormon’s book lying around too!!!).. Add to that the fact that being relatively new to the country, we’re still learning about people.. we’re constantly exposed to new types of people (from the overfriendly southern-drawling bus-driver, to the exceptionally rude landlords), it doesn’t surprise us anymore :)

    I’ve come to mostly just say “Sorry man” or “I don’t have any change” and sometimes just ignore them altogether. One recent con-artist I did come across was at the Mexico-US border, on the Mexico side. He was Mexican, I think, but dressed well, was tall and looked almost white. He said he lost his passport, and he spent his money calling up his relaties in the US, and the authorities can’t help him, blah blah… I walked on but a couple of my desi friends felt so guilty that they *went back to him* *after* he had already given up on us…

    But I’ll never forget the guy who fell in front of the gate =)

    Interesting that you should talk about hijars because i happened to watch 10-mins of a documentary just today… possibly the same one Lucifer watched… yeah turns out that in the older days (very long ago) they used to be held in esteem, and were brought into the courts for good luck, etc.. Nowadays, they go mostly by threating to give bad luck (so THAT’s why that one hijra placed his/her hand on my head that day in the train..) … as for weddings/baby-blessings, I believe that they force themselves into temples uninvited, and nobody dares chase them out… they then demand money, and if it’s not enough, they threaten to flash…. and yeah they’re not necessarily born biologically defective, they’re just castrated men…. interestingly, some banks/lenders also employ them to go and force repayment!

    Comment by eyw — August 11, 2007 @ 5:08 am | Reply

  7. insightful observation…
    Not sure if this can be included in the same category. An Afro American lady, tall and hefty! approached me as I was getting in line to checkout at walmart pleading if I would pay for her shopping. She has a few items in her cart probably would amount to < $10. She was all serious, somehow didn’t seem like she was joking…it was pretty late and I was almost scared, however I just kept walking on…
    And then well in downtown… a number of such incidents, get out of the parking lot and there’s more often than not someone trying to panhandle you… don’t carry a separate wallet, I guess that’s the best tactic, a little cash in your pocket ….for all those times you think its better to let go of a little cash than say ‘No’…

    Comment by RZD — August 17, 2007 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

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  10. Just ran across your post looking for an image of a panhandler for our church newsletter.

    Because of the difficulty in determining if a panhandler is truly in need, our church supplies “StreetWise” cards to our members. They are business card sized, easy to keep in an outside pocket, listing several full service shelters, food banks and employment assistance centers. We’ve even supplied dialog: “I’m sorry, I can’t help you in that way, but here are several places that you can find assistance.”

    Not a perfect solution and they clearly aren’t of help when traveling but, at least locally, you know you’ve tried to help if someone is genuinely in need.

    Comment by Lisa — December 13, 2009 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

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