We drove to Memphis on Thursday and arrived around 3:00pm. So after checking in to the hotel, we decided to stay close to that neighborhood rather than venturing out very far. And since our hotel was directly across the street from both the Redbirds’ ballpark and the Peabody hotel, a mere two blocks off of Beale, it wasn’t difficult to find something to do. We started by grabbing a meal at the Rendezvous followed by a pit-stop in the room to wash up. Then we headed to Beale Street to see what was going on, where we spent most of our time in a bar watching and laughing at a really bad Elvis impersonator / lounge singer!
But on the way there, on the sidewalk that runs beside the Peabody, we passed a very nicely dressed older lady holding her wallet wide open while fishing through it to give the panhandler standing in front of her a handout. The guy’s eyes were wide with anticipation as he stared at the wad of cash being exposed in front of him. We slowed our pace to covertly keep an eye on the transaction just in case something happened. Luckily it didn’t. He accepted the handout & they quickly separated, so we continued our walk. It became immediately apparent though that we were the panhandler’s next targets. I watched as he power-walked directly toward us. I motioned to the wife to cross the street in order to see if he would follow, which of course he did.
For the rest of the city block the three of us had an uncomfortable conversation consisting of fake names, home-towns & motivations – on both of our parts. We were Allen & Gertrude from Chicago visiting relatives. He never said his name, but he was from New Orleans displaced to Memphis by Katrina and really only wanted six bucks so that he could get some hot wings at Hooters which was there on the corner. (That’s right; he expected a handout so that he could go to Hooters!) But when Gertrude mentioned that we had seen the lovely lady back there give him some money and why couldn’t he get his wings with that, he replied that she was only giving him the twelve dollars he needed to stay at the shelter that night. (A shelter that charges a nightly rate? Maybe I’m the naïve one, but I had never heard of that before.) Anyway, we walked & talked for what seemed like several more minutes before he finally realized that we weren’t going to give him a dime & ran down the alley in search of his next target.
Honestly, if I had had a few bucks in my pocket, I would’ve probably given it to him if for no other reason than to get him to leave us alone. But I certainly wasn’t going to flip my wallet out in front of him, especially since we had just been to the bank to get money for the trip and that it would be too easy for him, if he were so inclined, to grab it out of my hands and run. It’s not like my old fat body could’ve caught him! But that wasn’t the end of the story.
The next morning, as we were waiting for the valet to bring our car around (not a word – it was one of the only hotels with any vacancy that weekend & valet was the only option for parking! Fifteen extra bucks per night – I wasn’t very happy) I stepped out of the door to see what the weather was like & looked out toward the street. And there he was. Mr. Hooters Hurricane right there on the street corner, but not in his bum clothes. Nope; that morning he was all pimped-out in a shirt and tie, brown tweed sport coat, sunglasses & a fashionable wooden-handle umbrella that he seemed to be using as an accessory. He looked back down the alley at one point, noticed us, and for some reason quickly ducked around the corner of the building! I can’t imagine why. (cough cough…)
I had heard stories like that before and had probably questioned their authenticity at the time, but nothing quite like that had ever happened to me. It’s not up to me to decide when someone asks for help, who is sincere and who is just taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists. But the audacity of this guy to hang out just half a block from the street he was “working” the night before was just astounding to us both. I want to be a generous man. I want to help those less fortunate than myself. And God has blessed me with the means to do so. But when something like this happens, it just reaffirms my own skepticism and cynicism towards the whole mess of our society. Is it possible to be philanthropic and be so totally untrusting simultaneously? I don’t know.
So did I learn anything in the process, besides to be even more skeptical of anyone asking for a handout than I already was? Maybe not. But at least I got a good story out of it, right?