I hate being panhandled. Hate it.
For a few years, I was a copy editor at City Weekly. Its offices are well situated across the street from Gallivan Plaza, smack dab in the middle of what by all rights should be a vibrant and hip downtown entertainment and shopping district. The stretch of Main Street between First and Fourth South seemed an ideal home for bookstores, art galleries, cafés and restaurants, an Afghan convenience store, a TV station and even a funky comedy theater. Ample parking day or night; people shouting, "Howdy, neighbor." That sort of thing.
The city maintained it beautifully. Sidewalk planters filled with begonia and asparagus fern were regularly emptied of cigarette butts left by inconsiderate smokers*. For a week every autumn, sunlight filtering through the sycamore leaves created a golden, otherworldly spectacle.
And yet, hardly anybody shopped or dined there, apart from the captive demographic of urban folks who actually work and/or live downtown. It became a delicate, self-contained economy. Timid commuters would peer at us suspiciously from the safety of the Gallivan TRAX platform, but never venture forth with a much-needed infusion of suburban dollars.
Now, suburbanites are instinctively fearful outside their familiar environment of national chain stores and restaurants with reassuring television ads. Still, once in a while, Bob Dobbs gets an itch for the exotic, and dares embark on a risky downtown adventure. But what happens the moment Bob steps his brogue wingtips off the TRAX platform? He's accosted by five creepy panhandlers in a row. Run for your life, Bob! Safely back on the platform, Bob embarks on the next Sandy train and vows never again to stop off in that sketchy part of town.
Even in good economic times, the local trade could barely keep small businesses afloat (the whole problem being, of course, that this "good" economy wasn't good enough to keep people from starving, losing their homes and begging on the streets.) With the advent of the Great Recession, things became desperate. Businesses shut down; even Sam Weller's bookstore, a longtime anchor in the neighborhood, decided to move to a better location.
All the downtown merchants know the panhandlers are scaring away customers. And, as I say, I sympathize with them wholeheartedly.
For a time, I did my best to greet the good street people with an open heart. I would keep spare change and cigarettes on hand to dole out dutifully each day. All the downtown merchants warned me, but I dismissed them as cynical, jaded assholes.
As the months and years went by, however, I found myself targeted by enough con artists and off-med psychotics that my heart grew ever more hardened. The guy who breathed down my neck at AJ's? The one who started out clean and nice but, with each passing day, became more and more grimy and unhinged until one day I noticed my friend was wearing soil-caked sweatpants and being carted away by the police for issuing violent threats to random passers-by?
Every time I saw a 60-year-old man openly pissing on those lovely begonia-and-asparagus-fern planters, I lost a chunk of my soul. And I resented my transformation from a cockeyed-optimistic idealist to one of those cynical, jaded assholes I used to dismiss.
The panhandling measure before the Salt Lake City Council seeks to make "aggressive" panhandling even more illegal than it already is. It's timely, because as the middle class disappears, and as income inequity increases in this country, we can only expect to see more and more people living in filth on the streets and begging for a living. We can lock them up so we don't have to look at them. But we'll end up paying a lot more than spare change for that privilege.
And, as long as we keep them locked up and out of mind, we can go on thinking that the nation's economic problems really are manageable, and maybe all it will take is another tax cut for the rich to get us back on the road to prosperity. Who knows? Maybe it will work this time, even though it never has before.
I say that's bullshit. If there's one thing to be said for aggressive homeless panhandlers, it's that they serve as a constant reminder of our fucked-up economic system. The only way to get rid of them is with a sustainable economic policy that lifts all boats -- including those of the least among us.
There's some crazy ones among them? OK: Get them into psychiatric programs where they belong. Get the rest into rehab and employment programs so they can become productive and happy. Create progressive tax and health-care schemes that allow small businesses to thrive. And pay for this by reinstating a fair tax on the billionaire plutocrats who got a free ride the whole time the economy tanked, and forgot to use their lucky tax breaks to "create jobs" like they were supposed to.
* Note: This situation may have been remedied if anybody had thought to place a goddamn ashtray within five miles. Still, I attempted to set a good example by officiously extinguishing my c-sticks on trash bins and making a big show of discarding my butts properly.
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