I sometimes wonder whether the Savior's remark that, "...the poor shall be with ye always," was actually made at a truck stop. As a Christian, I celebrate this season when the Word became flesh and also observe that, judging from the above quote, in addition to being the Prince of Peace, Christ is also the undisputed King of Understatement.
Pandhandlers are an almost daily fact of life for an over the road trucker. I don't know if they think we are loaded with cash, or if maybe it's the "captive audience" nature of truck stops (we can only park and rest in certain places). But after maneuvering The Beast backwards into a parking spot, I'll often look up and see them approaching, eyes darting about, maybe with a sachel of "gold" chains they're ready to sell, or a forlorn look that cues the violins for the sob story I'm about to hear. I like to think I've achieved a certain level of discernment and can distinguish the truly needy from the thoroughly seedy, but I'm not always sure.
Over at the Washington Post today, Petula Dvořák discusses the phenomenon in the DC area, and her article got me to thinking. Is there some "one size fits all" response to panhandlers here that doesn't entail extreme indifference or gullibility? Some people offer to buy a meal for a person who claims to be hungry. I like that approach, but with the schedules I run, I often times don't have time to eat lunch myself, let alone watch someone else eat. I find that I will sometimes hand over a few bucks out of simple expediency rather than debate with the panhandler, and later with my own conscience. At other times, I've become annoyed (especially with the jewelry salesmen), even to the point of offering once to introduce the merchandise to the digestive processes of a particularly tenacious antagonist.
The words, "I was hungry and ye fed me, I was naked and ye clothed me," come back to my mind. Especially at this time of year, as the cold sets in. I have noticed a fortunate trend where the truck stop panhandlers have migrated south, so that their ranks swell in Florida but dwindle in Michigan, where I am today.
But the images remain. The mass of blankets on the concrete in Alabama, where a young man slept a couple of weeks ago. The veteran in Denver sleeping outside the truck stop, back in 2006, who lost his ka-bar and wanted a few bucks for another to defend himself from hoodlums. The lady with mascara running down her face, who had tried to surprise her husband at a truck stop only to find him in the sleeper with another woman and now just wanted enough money to put some gas in her car and go home. The young troop who had lost his bank card and needed gas to get his young family to his next duty station. All of these people I helped, but there are many that I didn't. It's not always an easy call, and it's often made more difficult by my own limitations of time, judgement, and resources. Tis the season, right?