So this morning I’m sitting in Central Park reading a book about Saint Francis of Assisi, and this little dude comes up to me. He’s wearing battered saffron robes and a hat. (Like this.)
I’ve seen his type before and figure he may be about to ask me for a handout. Instead he bows and smiles and slides a colorful bracelet onto my wrist and a gold paper amulet into my hand. OK, thanks, I say. Um, do you need—?
Speechless he bows again and proffers a notebook with printed text about supporting his temple and a page where others have apparently pledged largish amounts—$20, $50. I can’t give so much, I explain. Should I return his gifts?
No, no, he gestures, holding up his hands. Keep them.
“Watch out!” a woman suddenly hollers at me from the nearby footpath. “He’s a panhandler!”
Several potential responses cross my mind, from the flippant (“Some of my best friends are panhandlers!”) to the classic New Yorker (“What’s it to ya?”) But she seems to have only my welfare in mind, however stridently, so I glance past my monkish acquaintance and just say “Thank you.” She strides off.
I carry a pocketful of dollar bills. I reach in and give Monkish $2. If he’d just walked up and said hey, can you help me get something to eat, I’d’ve given him a buck or two regardless. So it seemed like a pretty good deal for the shiny paper and jewelry. He bowed and smiled some more and then pattered away. Perhaps he had no intention of blessing me, but I felt blessed.
I wonder why my helpful passerby felt the need to enlighten me that Monkish was a panhandler, as if the word meant thief or molester. Begging on the streets of New York City is not illegal; neither’s giving to those who beg.* Panhandlers may be honest about their situation, they may not, but they’re asking, not stealing. (To be clear, the New York Times article cited above says that some of these monkish folks can get obstreperous, but my park-bench visitor was nice as pie.)
You know who else was a panhandler? San Francisco was hardcore about his vow of poverty. If I remember correctly, he and his immediate followers often depended on the kindness of strangers, and he had a beautifully nutty tendency to give away the literal garment off his back and wander off in his skivvies.
How could I ever tell the difference between Saint Francis and some bum? A much safer bet to have some spare change for all. Besides, I like the bracelet.
*According to those potted MTA announcements, begging in subway cars is illegal. I guess I’m not bothered by that, but I am bothered by the way that announcement closes: “We ask you not to give. Please help us to maintain an orderly subway.” Orderly, defined here as without poor people. Super, MTA: get me an orderly city, or heck, an orderly world, and then I’ll keep my pocketful of dollars.
Oh, and my spouse wisely pointed out that maybe hollering lady had only encountered obstreperous faux-monks, which would make sense.