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 the 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 was 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.