Panhandling: Community or transaction?

This summer, I was driving and listening to, I think, Tapestry on CBC Radio. A man affiliated with a Cathedral somewhere was talking about panhandlers who sat near the church. His thesis was that they wanted your recognition as people, as members of our community more than they wanted your spare change. They want eye contact and a ‘good morning, how are you’, he said.

He’d filled in for one of the panhandlers one day while the guy had to run an errand. He said Panhandlers sign in californiathe worst thing he felt was the invisibility – that no one saw him while he was sitting on the church steps. By being in the context of  ‘panhandler’, he was not worth noticing. In his usual context of Church official, he would have been acknowledged, even respected. He hadn’t changed his clothes or behaviour, simply put himself in a place where Church officials do not sit, held the equipment of the panhandler and therefore became him. What he especially noticed was the averting of eyes from him.

I was listening and thinking about my response to panhandlers. A couple blocks further on, I got a chance to test myself. A young man was standing on the traffic island by the stoplights. He held a cardboard sign and had a plastic container at his feet. As I got closer in the line of traffic, I saw it read “out of work, need spare change”.  What am I going to do? I was just hoping the light wouldn’t change so I’d have to stop beside him. My luck held and I caught the tail end of the advance turn signal. “Sorry buddy I gotta turn now!” I only said that in my head. Like all the other drivers I could see, I drove right past without making eye contact with him.


I am usually an eye-averter. But, I realized, I’m also an eye-averter at craft shows, trade shows and any store that actually still has shop assistants who themselves aren’t eye-averting with customers. I don’t want to enter into any conversation which has a transaction as its principal motive.

If I’m at a craft sale and want to look at hand-crocheted items, it doesn’t mean I want to buy any and I don’t want to feel guilted into buying a doily because the nice lady that made it is telling me all about it. So I slink along, keeping to the middle of the aisle so I’m not easily ‘eye-caught’ by the genial grandmother or the slick-suited window salesman. If they catch your eye, you become obligated to talk to them. And, oh yes, they’ll talk to you at length about anything. But ultimately they are hoping you will buy something.

I have way too much stuff in my house that I bought because I felt it crowd at London UK marketwas the decent thing to do. Trapped into communication and made part of a tiny exchange community leads to having all kinds of gizmos and handcrafty items that eventually make their way to the ‘community’ of the Goodwill Industries.

The social communication of a market situation is selling something to someone. And panhandling is a market situation. Someone is asking someone else to give them money. They’re selling you the act of making yourself feel good? They’re selling charity, pity, egalitarianism, ‘there but for the grace of God…’? I don’t know. But I decided that my eye-averting is not an act of denying community membership to someone, it’s just an act of not wanting to engage in commerce. When my eye is caught, by a good panhandler or a good salesperson, I usually end up buying, or giving. That’s why I try to keep myself disengaged; I don’t like the value of my humanity being assessed on the scales of trade.

Horse: Free to a good home

standardbred ex-racehorse Jaffey LeeA few years ago, I got involved in finding homes for two Standardbred ex-racehorses whose owner had died. Neither were broke for saddle, they were getting up in years and they’d been together for most of their lives, so finding a home wasn’t going to be easy. As it happened, we did find a home for both of them as companion horses in a small herd. But in the course of all this, I learned a couple things about horses and people.

Meat Buyers

One thing was beware of meat buyers. Not knowing any better, we advertised them as “free to a good home”. Their eventual new person and others told us “list them for sale at least at their dollar value as meat”. Unfortunately, there is a market for horses to be sold for meat and “free to a good home” just means more profit for horsemeat brokers.

While thinking about how to find a good home for these two lovely horses, one day in Aylmer, I saw a horse and buggy on the road. Aha, I thought, there’s the answer! What could be better for a Standardbred than life on a Mennonite farm! A job for the horses without having to race, without having to get used to a saddle and rider, a job of value where they would be respected as important members of a way of life. If anyone would treat animals well, I thought, it would be Old Order Mennonites. So I was thinking about how to find out if anyone in the Old Order colony near Aylmer wanted a couple of horses.

Sulky to buggy?

Then I began hearing the second thing I learned. Every horse person I knew said, without my asking, “whatever you do, don’t let them go to the Mennonites”. This truly surprised me. At first, I thought it was individual xenophobic distrust, prejudice against the “different”. But too many people said it, including people I thought of as fair and unbiased. I started asking more questions. I was told some Mennonites – some said the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – were ok and treated their horses well. But, people told me, too many others do not care for them properly.

Instead, horses are regarded as pieces of equipment that you use up and replace when worn out. To explain it, especially in a case of free or cheap horses, people made comparisons to the old ‘beater’ cars that many of us have, where you don’t bother spending money fixing them, just drive them until they die and buy another old cheap one. That, I was told, was the attitude of many Mennonites to their horses.

The objection these people had was not that the horses were used for work, it was that they were not cared for properly. In the words of one horseman, “the horses are run hard and put in the barn wet.” That is a good way to get a sick horse, and something no responsible horse person would ever do. I still find it hard to believe that anyone who relies on horsepower wouldn’t treat that horse well. It’s in their own self-interest to do so.

horse and buggy near Aylmer ON photo D StewartI see the horses and buggies in the parking lots of Aylmer stores, in shade if shade is available. Along #73 Highway and the sideroads near Aylmer I see them trot. I watch draft horses pulling plows in Mennonite fields. I look at the horses turned out to pasture at well-tended Mennonite farms. And I wonder.

Puppy Mills

I see puppies and kittens at Mennonite stalls at the local farmers’ market. They are all breeds and types, but they all look healthy and well-cared for. I’ve never asked “how do you treat your horses, do you run a puppy mill?” How do you ask that?

Mistreatment of animals doesn’t stop with horses, I was told. Many of the small scale puppy mill operations here are in Mennonite areas. I started paying closer attention to the Dogs for Sale ads in the paper. Yep, “no Sunday calls” and a phone number with an extension – something found where one central phone services an entire community.

I read in One Nation Under Dog about Amish dog breeders in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Author Michael Schaffer seems to have the same dilemma as I do about this. He writes that, for the Mennonite farmer, dog breeding provided a new livestock market or crop when small scale farming was being battered by agribusiness and coming out on the losing side of economies of scale. But the dogs are being raised as livestock outside in barns and cages, even though the intended ‘market’ for them is the inside of homes with dogbeds and squeaky toys.

Rehoming a Standardbred

There are a lot of Standardbred racehorses in South Western Ontario. Thousands of them never make it to the track or retire every year. They still have a long life ahead of them. They need homes. Old Order Mennonites need horses for transportation. Trotters and pacers are ideal. It seems like a match made in heaven.

But the horse people I talked to, harness racing people and others, all said they would not send a Standardbred or any horse to a Mennonite farm. I was saddened by this, and felt disillusioned about the ideal of Mennonite life I’ve always imagined: of people and animals united by a fundamental connection with nature lost to most of us in the modern world, and a spiritual injunction to care for all God’s creatures.