I am parked in the lot of my local market watching a familiar panhandler. He always fascinated me. I know that he is a war-veteran. At first I used to see him on the freeway off-ramp close to the market, holding up a sign that read “Hungry! Please help”. I was never uncomfortable seeing him because I grew up in India where this was a daily scene on the streets of Mumbai. So, where others would turn away their eyes I had no issue in gazing directly at this soul. Also, he was such a gentleman and I might add a flatterer! He always greeted me with “Hey gorgeous, how are you today?” Could I ignore that, especially on a lousy day?! Let me just say that he benefited often!
He is a white male, probably in his mid to late fifties, about five feet seven inches, with a scraggy, red skin, piercing blue eyes, overgrown mustache and a long, grey beard that ended mid-chest in a v-formation. His white hair streaked with gray is combed back and extends about four inches below his neckline and protrudes way below the cap. Today, he is wearing a collared, short-sleeved, blue t-shirt, hanging almost down to his knees, khaki pants, scruffy, brown sneakers and a legionnaire hat. His worn, plaid, flannel jacket is hung over the corner of the market bench’s backrest. He is not at all aggressive and makes peace signs to people, as a greeting, and counts the change as he receives it.
Watching him is so interesting. To one passer-by he would say “How are you today? Can you give a little help?” or “Slow one today, huh?” to a young mother whose little boy was straggling. “Need some help with that?” he said to an old woman struggling with her errant grocery cart. He rested one leg on the other, alternately changing every two minutes or so, played with his shoelaces, picked at his shoe heel, scratched his beard, pulled at his beard, made the peace sign again and scratched his knee. He sat on the far corner of the bench as if he was expecting someone else to come and sit there. As I watch him lighting a cigarette, I have questions. Where is his home? Does he have a wife, children, parents, siblings, friends?
I count twenty people who have passed him so far and only two have given him money. People avoided him and if they absolutely had to pass him to get to the store, they gazed off into the distance, as if preoccupied, ignoring his “Hello” and his peace-sign greeting. If in groups, they would converse intensely with each other and pass him, too scared to even acknowledge his friendly greeting lest it would necessitate giving him money, which they clearly found very distasteful. It was like an invisible area had been marked around him. People would exit the market and then go to great lengths to step down from the pavement where he sat, go around him and then step back on to the pavement.
He scratches his skin again – probably too dry in the winter or he had not had a bath in a while. A shopper left an empty grocery cart where it did not belong. He jumped up, walked over to the cart, grabbed it purposefully and strode with it to the cart section and left it there like a good citizen. For a brief moment, he felt useful like part of the humanity around him, who all seemed to have a purpose or a destination in mind. With this act, he blended in. I saw such a change him as he performed this act. His head was high, his stride strong and his face intent on his job. Then, back to the bench. Another careless shopper abandoned a food cart. Once again, he claimed it and returned it to its proper place. I wonder if the grocery-baggers and manager of the store know that he is helping them out. Now he is picking the wax out of his ears. He is actually grossed out by what he sees! He cleans the other ear too and then wipes his fingers on his khaki pants and waits.
Another man joins him now. They hug each other. He is taller, younger and smiles a lot. He is wearing faded jeans, sneakers, a green sweatshirt and a cap. Harold looks away from him for a while. He is giving the younger man very terse replies and appears nervous, shrugging his shoulders constantly as he speaks. The younger man then gets up, shakes his hand and leaves, wandering across the parking lot. I feel that the message he got was something like “….this is my bench – go away”! He is probably defending his territory. A young, Chinese boy with his father, stops and drops some change into Harold’s palm. He stands up, puts the change deep into his pockets and then sits down again. He is so restless now. He is drumming his fingers first on his knees and then on the bench seat. He asks a preppie-looking, young man for change but is met with a shake of the head.
Even though I know that he uses portions of his collection on cigarettes, or whatever other indulgence he has, my aim is not to judge him. I was watching him solely, to study the effect his presence was having on people passing him by (clearly uncomfortable) and also on myself and all the feelings it dredged up in me, trying to fathom his feelings as he sat there day after day.