Panhandling is a pretty sensitive topic. To give or not to give? Can you trust what they’ll do with your money? How else can you help? These are all important, debatable questions, and I’m sure we’ll discuss them here. But it just ain’t happening today. Instead, I want to share my experience with the most talented panhandler I’ve ever met.
If you’ve ever been to New York City, there’s a 98% chance you’ve been approached by a panhandler. On a tiny island with 1.6+ million people, the panhandling and homeless community in NYC is much more visible than most cities. And when there are that many people asking for the same thing, it means going above and beyond the cardboard sign and cup of change to get your dollar. Especially in the city known for its cold, hustle and bustle, heart.
One winter day, I was on my way home from my office in Midtown to our cozy apartment in the Upper East Side. That meant taking the 6 train from the 51st Street station to 86th Street, a total of four stops. It just so happens to be that that line happens to be the busiest in the country, so personal space gets very, well, personal. I joined the herd of passengers into a train, settled into my spot by a pole, and fixed my gaze ahead.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a sweet, elderly Chinese woman smiling. She was happy about something. Or crazy. Which isn’t surprisingly uncommon on crowded trains. I peeked around someone standing in front of me to see what she could possibly be looking at. There was a middle-aged, disheveled African American man with a clipboard and Sharpie pen in hand. I looked at the paper and saw an incredible portrait of that same smiling Chinese woman. He was putting the finishing touches on it and I was absolutely mesmerized. As the train slowed for the 59th Street stop, the woman collected her belongings to stand up. The artist took a second to sign his name and a brief note that I couldn’t see. He handed her the paper, she bowed, and off she went.
This intermission brought to you by the most talented panhandler I’ve never met.
I couldn’t help but smile. Clearly, I wasn’t expecting to witness what I did in a city known for being rough around the edges. Where people would rather bury their heads in newspapers and headphones than dare interact with fellow passengers. Where brashness typically drowns out kindness. This was an awesome moment. Suddenly, I saw the man with clipboard pan the car. Before I knew it, his eyes had already met mine.
Anyone who knows me knows that I hate drawing attention to myself in public. I’d rather fade in the background, go about my business and surround myself around people and places where and with whom I feel comfortable.
And so I quickly fiddled around in my pockets looking for my cellphone that would be of absolutely no use to me hundreds of feet below ground. After staring at my phone for a few seconds, I casually looked up and scanned around. I glanced in his direction and he was working feverishly on his next portrait. Phew. Dodged that bullet. And then he looked up and fixed his gaze on me. CRAP!
As he drew, nearby passengers began watching him work. And naturally, they wanted to see his subject: me. I did my best to be a good sport and enjoy the moment. I watched as a recognizable face appeared on his paper. I smiled at others who were analyzing me against his artwork. And suddenly, before I knew it, I heard my exit cue. The next stop is 86th Street. After spending just two or three minutes drawing me, and sensing my departure, he signed his name and wrote a brief note. He got up and handed me the portrait. I thanked him and looked the drawing over. I noticed the scrawled note at the bottom of the page that read, “Please tip if you like.”
Normally, I feel slighted or duped when confronted for money, especially on the spot. But this dude was talented. Despite bumps, screeching halts and pressed against the clock, he not only drew an awesome portrait, but he entertained half a train car. So I grabbed the largest bill from my wallet ($5), handed it to him, and thanked him again.
And that’s the most talented panhandler I’ve ever met. He was contributing and creating something of value. Despite his circumstances (whatever they might have been), he was still using his God-given talent to do something. He was being the best panhandler he knew how to be.
Have you ever encountered a panhandler that made your day?