Brother, Can You Spare Fifty $1 Bills?

Naked Cowboy New York Post panhandle

The New York Post’s citywide trolling rolls on this morning, with an article titled “The truth behind The Naked Cowboy and other panhandlers.” Whatever “truth” may have been uncovered is promptly re-covered, with judgment and speculation from Post writer John Crudele. “I am a sucker for a hard-luck story,” Crudele admits. “But there is an art to it—in the signs they prop up in front of themselves with simple marketing messages.” What sounds like a lead-in to a listicle—“Eight Simple Marketing Messages to Strengthen Your Panhandle”—is actually the start of a weird takedown of people holding cardboard signs.

Crudele set out with fifty $1 bills in his pocket to get the skinny on this whole panhandling thing in what he calls the “post-Naked Cowboy era.” He keeps an open mind—“Let’s say I believe them all”—despite having been swindled by a faux Iraq war veteran two years earlier, who “made me poorer by five bucks before I checked out his story with the VA.” Who has ever fact-checked a panhandler?

What Crudele brings back from his search for the tricks of the trade are illustrated at the end of the article, beneath photos of four panhandlers, and his observations read like a PowerPoint from a marketing seminar on hard-luck content:

  • “I find it difficult to contribute to panhandlers who are dressed better than I am—like this fellow.”
  • “Spread ♥s and decals—they serve as a pleasing contrast to the harsh message.”
  • “It’s smart to say ‘anything helps.’ That’ll get you at least two bits [25¢]. People are too self-conscious to give just a dime.”
  • “Stuart Goodman, the weed man of Times Square [whose sign reads, “NEED MONEY FOR WEED. WHY LIE ☺”], would like to think honesty is the best policy. But this scant humor has run its course.”

At first, the advice seems to have come from the individuals in the pictures, but Crudele inserts himself in explaining what he sees as the “trick” of each. He suggesting drawing hearts on your cardboard sign, as one woman claiming to be homeless after leaving an abusive relationship has done—a shrewd business decision.

I have seen panhandlers with similar signs to Stuart Goodman’s, asking for beer money. I appreciate it to a degree, but the “why lie” line plays into the public perception of “hard-luck stories” that turn out not to be true, as well as the noblesse oblige notion that giving money to a panhandler gives a person the right to dictate how that money is spent. “Need money for weed” does far more for the honesty of the giver than the receiver.

Presenting yourself falsely, whether as an impoverished war veteran or homeless mother, is wrong, because it diminishes the plight of actual impoverished war veterans and homeless mothers, of which there are many in this city. But that it’s wrong is really not the point. It is worth questioning the moral high-wire act of fact-checking recipients of sidewalk or subway charity, or parsing their strategies, whether or not their stories are true. Whether or not they are, by believing the message and giving a donation (whether two bits or five bucks), the giver enters into a contract of belief with the receiver. Being taken in by a “hard-luck story” is not the fault of the story’s teller—Crudele chose to believe the faux war veteran, and chose to give him $5.

The onus of truth-telling that is placed on panhandlers is tied to the paternalistic notion that a person who gives $5 has a right to say where that $5 will go. It is not an earmarked tax-deductible donation, or a teenager’s allowance. $5 is $5 whether it goes toward a homeless person’s lunch (or beer, or weed) or a millionaire’s coat check. The choice is to give or not to give, and it rests entirely on the giver’s own judgement.

Even if no one panhandling in the entirety of New York City were telling the truth, are we to believe that they would rather panhandle than find a job that paid more than a begrudging $1 or $2 an hour? Saying “there is an art” to panhandling may be a defensible point, but it paints many people in actual poverty as hucksters and clever charlatans. The rhetoric of sob stories and “marketing” of homelessness plays into the notion that panhandlers are faking it, or secretly driving Benzes back and forth to Greenwich. It is the myth of welfare queens and cardboard sign billionaires that makes charity, even two bits of it, a moral inquisition for people in need. If you decide to give, recognize that your money does not earn you anyone’s truth. And if you truly want to help the homeless, take your fifty $1s to a charity.

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.

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