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Paris on Five Dollars a Day (More or Less)

panhandler in paris

Have I been subsidizing a scrounger’s lavish lifestyle? Photo © Tamas Panczel-Eross / Dreamstime.comDreamstime.com

Paris is home to a sizable population of beggars, a tradition that no doubt dates back to when the city was an outpost of the Roman ...

panhandler in paris

Have I been subsidizing a scrounger’s lavish lifestyle? Photo © Tamas Panczel-Eross / Dreamstime.com

Paris is home to a sizable population of beggars, a tradition that no doubt dates back to when the city was an outpost of the Roman Empire. One reason for this, no doubt, is that Paris is also home to a sizable population of people like me, who give them money from time to time.

Over the years I have developed, more or less consciously, a fairly well-defined policy about panhandlers (as opposed to fundraisers — a different variety of solicitation that I have already discussed in a previous column).

I will (almost) always give money to:

• Women who seem to be alone and don’t fall into one of the disqualifying categories mentioned below.

• Beggars who give one of those little whistle-stop speeches on the Métro and have a good line of patter.

• Street musicians who actually deserve the title of “musician.”

• And are not playing “Those Were the Days.”

• Or “El Condor Pasa.”

• Especially not “El Condor Pasa.”

I will (almost) never give money to:

• Street “musicians” who don’t deserve the title of “person with the slightest discernible shred of melodic, rhythmic or harmonic sensibility.” This is as common as it is annoying.

• Beggars who are verbally abusive to the people who don’t give them money and then turn to the next person with a big, friendly, plastered-on smile as though nothing had just happened. This is as common as it is absurd.

• Beggars who are very, very drunk. (Up to “very” I don’t really have a problem with it. Years ago I casually mentioned to a friend that I never gave money to drunken beggars because they’d just spend it on booze, to which she replied, “David, don’t be such a hypocrite! If you ever had to spend one night on the street you would be soooo drunk soooo fast!” Realizing that this was soooo true, I amended my policy there and then.)

• Young, able-bodied punks who seem to think, like the hippies of my own generation, that it’s somehow cool and noble to sponge off of society, but whose outfits, boots, jewelry, piercings, tattoos and elaborate high-maintenance hairstyles obviously cost enough to pay for at least a month’s rent and food.

I say “almost never” because once in a while I come across a beggar who is so desperate I can’t really blame him or her for failing to have better people skills. In these cases I remind myself that very few homeless indigents are marketing and PR consultants who just happen to love the great outdoors.

However, most beggars fall into a gray area, somewhere in between my narrow largesse zones. ry, so he oftens hits me up for my spare centimes.the same bakery every day asking for change. It happens to be my favorite bakeIn my own neighborhood there’s a textbook example, a middle-aged guy who hangs out in front of my favorite bakery hitting up customers for spare centimes. He seems to be only tenuously in touch with reality (one of the basic qualifications for his job) and has some kind of mild but chronic trouble expressing himself. On the other hand, he is invariably polite and doesn’t smell bad, which are two big pluses in anyone’s line of work.

I had gotten into the habit of slipping him a euro or two when I felt like it, maybe a couple of times a month, until a couple of weeks ago when I went out to pick up a pain de campagne. Down the block I saw him at his usual station, and started fishing in my pocket for a coin. But as I arrived he was going into the bakery, which I had never seen him do before. I presumed that his collection cup had just reached critical mass and he was going to get something to eat. Turned out I was wrong: as I walked in, he was holding out a little plastic Tic Tac dispenser and telling the four young women behind the counter, “This is for you. You can each take two.” The staff seemed to be used to this ritual. One of them said, “Two this time?” And he answered, in his halting, raspy voice, “Yes. Two for each of you.”

I was impressed. He was “giving back to the community,” so to speak, offering the personnel a token micro-gift in recognition for their tolerating his constant and not exactly brand-image-enhancing presence. I thought this was remarkably nice of him and decided to upgrade his donation frequency on my nondeductible charitable contributions schedule from “pretty much occasional” to “pretty much fairly often.”

Then it occurred to me: aren’t mints a kind of a discretionary purchase, if not an outright luxury, for someone living on a shoestring? He has so little money he has to cadge coins, but he spends them on nutritionless breath fresheners? What else does he carry around? Self-tanning cream? An emery board? A pair of Groucho glasses? Am I going to see him next week with a cigarette holder and spats?

But then I figured what the hell. Even a clochard is entitled to a frivolous expenditure once in a while. After all, maybe he realized that Tic Tacs were a relatively inexpensive way to keep his beer and tobacco breath (speaking of frivolous expenditures) from repelling potential donors, in addition to securing the good graces of the bakery staff — his landlords, in a sense. If so, the guy’s a marketing and PR whiz. Maybe he could find work as a consultant…

David Jaggard

Reader Nick Hammond writes: "As much as I admire David Jaggard's wry commentaries on Parisian life and as much as I applaud his generosity to beggars, he seems this time to have overstepped the mark. If the man described in his piece had driven a Jaguar or worn an Armani suit, then the beggar's indulgence in luxuries might justifiably have been taken to task, but to call the purchase of a small box of Tic-Tacs a 'luxury'? For all we know, the sweets might provide him with much-needed energy or he might simply deserve the occasional humble treat!"

Reader Panama Red writes: "I gotta take exception here, as an old hippie, to David Jaggard's characterization of hippies of his 'own generation' as people who thought it was 'somehow cool and noble to sponge off of society.' Perhaps he is a bit younger than myself (65) and therefore never had the opportunity to actually KNOW any hippies. Because, except for the Manson family, who could hardly be called representative, panhandlers were actually pretty rare in my time. This, to me, is almost like the apocryphal story of the hippie spitting on the returning Vietnam vet, which to my gut's knowledge never happened, as it would have been an act of aggression, and not love. (Find me one vet who was spat upon. You can't.)
"Okay, so we did have panhandlers, but they never viewed their work as particularly noble, if they thought about it at all, and they didn't have the expensive accoutrements of today's youth: no tats, no piercings, no Doc Marten's, no outrageous hair. We spent our money on useful things, like recreational drugs, sex and rocknroll. So I guess that what I'm complaining about is David's wantonly confusing the characteristics of one generation with those of their grandparents.
"However, I'm completely on board with the rest of the article, but until I get a retraction and an apology, Mr. Jaggard can just GET OFF MY LAWN!"

Writer David Jaggard responds: "From here, your lawn looks a whole lot like a public park. And since when does a hippie tell anyone to keep off the grass?"

Reader Kurt Luchs writes: "When Panama Red says that hippie panhandlers were actually pretty rare in his time, I'm thinking his glasses are as rose-colored as his name. He must have spent those years far away from the capital of hippiedom, Haight Ashbury. The place was crawling with them. This is one of the few times that Bob Hope's hopelessly anachronistic jokes of the Sixties were on target. These kids were filthy, they were lazy, they were an offense to the eyes, ears and nose. George Harrison is on record as having been duly disgusted by them during one of his visits there. As for those critical of the author's attitude to the Parisian beggars, I think he strikes a healthy balance between cynical realism and compassion."

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