Published Date Written by Staff ReportWhen society was reinventing itself in the 1960s, or at least seemed to be on the part of those who were drinking the Kool-Aid, asking people on the street for money became part of the new cool, like long hair on men and no bras for women. "Getting by with a little help from my friends" had a certain chummy ring to it.
Someone who asks you for money on the street today is not playing around or making any kind of statement, though. Most of them want the money to get wasted in one way or another, plain and simple. And they don't make any bones about it.
There was a story in the news a few months ago about a spare changer sitting on the sidewalk in the Old Port holding a sign saying that he needed money for beer. People were impressed with his honesty, he said, and his take improved dramatically when he came up with the new approach.
Following the story, spare changers throughout the city started trying to outdo one another in their forthrightness. Such displays of candor. "Oh, I need a beer, for sure" they said, " but I need cigarettes real bad too," they added, sincerity shining forth from their eyes.
Oh well, it has to be granted that it was all very amusing. This is Portland and somehow one expects that even our spare changers will come up with a different twist to things. And they definitely get good at what they do.
Someone not long ago asked me for 37 cents. I couldn't resist asking him why that amount and he said that it was what he needed to get a "fat boy," which is a quart of beer. I told him I didn't have any change and he offered to change a dollar. I looked at him uneasily because I really didn't want him digging into his pocket to get change. When he saw my discomfort he had a way out for me. He told me in a discrete whisper, to save me any embarrassment, that most people give him a dollar anyway because they don't want to be seen taking change from him, so not to worry about not having any change. In sales it's called the assumptive close. My giving him a dollar is assumed, the only question is whether or not I want him to give me change back. Sure enough, because I had taken some of his time, I gave him a dollar, and since we had bonded over the embarrassment factor I didn't even consider waiting around for the change.
There is another kind of spare changer, though. They're often smoking clove cigarettes and have a wide streak of fluorescent red or blue through their hair. They give you a droll look and hit you up for a fiver in a bored kind of way, like they've seen a lot of people like you at parties their parents give. It's fun to keep walking and not pay them the slightest speck of attention. Ah, what a treat. Sometimes after you've passed them you get the muffled "Screw you" or whatever, and that's even better.
What got me going on this was the recent news item about the City Council voting against a proposal that would have outlawed panhandling on median strips around the city. The proposal was developed at the request of the Police Department, and the council's Public Health and Human Services Committee had unanimously endorsed it, but the council decided against it.
The issue wasn't whether or not people should be able to ask strangers for money in public places. It's been well established that they can legally do so. They can't verbally ask, whether on median strips or elsewhere, but they can display a sign asking. It's been ruled that asking via the written word is protected by the laws of free speech.
The issue was touted as one of safety. The proponents of the proposal cited fears expressed to them by numerous drivers that the people standing on the median strips with signs were in danger of falling into the line of traffic because they are often visibly intoxicated. They'll also make their way to a car in an inside lane to grab a buck that's being waved from a window, and when the light changes there they are, caught between the lines of moving traffic, weaving from side to side, like they tend to do. Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the police regularly receive calls from people who are alarmed at the situation.
Zachery Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said that the proposal would limit free speech rights while disproportionately affecting people "without other options who are just trying to make a little money."
The safety issue got overridden by what the majority of the council saw as a more basic human right, which is the right to support oneself. We just don't like to limit one another around here. We don't.
But what bothers in all this is that the Public Health and Human Services Committee and the Police Department put a lot of thought and hard work into this only to have their recommendation be rejected. It's also true that sometimes people have to be protected against themselves. They being the infirm or the inebriate. Which latter case we are dealing with here.
Oh, Portland wants so badly to be all things to all people, though. Everyone gets to do their thing in an unfettered way.
But one has to wonder how this drinkers-playing-in-the-traffic thing is going to work out in the end.
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.