Mendicant is an old synonym for beggar and this is what’s on my mind at the moment. To call someone a beggar today is considered pejorative. I recognize this sensibility and yet the word mendicant seems too formal, maybe even pretentious. This word also applies to a religious order whose members take a vow of poverty and agree to live as a mendicant, that is to live from begging. Begging, however doesn’t seem correct to use with religious life because most religious orders don’t really beg to survive, but by most accounts, live quite comfortably compared to others whom I might call professional beggars. One I know even called herself one, and she was very professional with me.
Without getting the details of what constitutes begging or a beggar, I just remember my encounters with some throughout my life. All of them in chance encounters give me a respectful view of professional beggars.
I think my first encounter with a professional beggar was in downtown Missoula. Passing him by on the way to the library, I recall his blindness and the can of sharpened pencils he was selling. This makes him a salesman of sorts, but the idea behind his begging was to look the part of someone in need (I have no reason to believe he wasn’t blind.) and to kindly receive the donations of others whether they took a pencil or not.
In Paris, I often would see professional beggars on the steps of metro stations, often with a baby. I don’t recall giving anything to them. I suppose because I myself was almost a beggar, being a student!
When I was a working as a restaurant accountant in Minneapolis, I had a couple of interesting encounters with professional beggars. Both times, I was waiting for a bus and the bus never came soon enough to rescue me from the beggar’s hand. One gentleman wanted money for something to eat. Here, I add that I was in the habit of carrying single bills in my right-side pants or coat pocket so I wouldn’t have to rustle through my wallet, not that it was filled with any substantial amount. He could see that I was annoyed and I was. I wanted to go home. He wanted to eat. I gave him what I had and just as the bus was arriving, he asked me join him for a hamburger. I am still ashamed today of my behavior. First by being annoyed at someone’s need and of getting on the bus instead of having a hamburger.
In another bus incident, I was waiting for a bus when a guy came forward and asked for a dollar. I had it ready and gave it to him thinking that he would leave. Instead, he started a conversation about life in general and I kept looking up the street to see if the bus were coming. The bus was slow to come and after looking for it a few times, the beggar cleverly said, “If that bus doesn’t come soon, it’s going to cost you another dollar!” Now that’s a professional using humor!
As a priest, I was was quite often visited by people who needed money. One comes to mind who was a real charmer. She was sincere and honest about what she was doing, that is trying to make some money for house and food and young family. She was very specific about what she needed: an electric bill here or a phone bill there. She usually wanted or needed more money than I could provide, but in every case she was grateful. One time, I told her that she should go to the corner gas station where it was common to have people ask you to buy their gas, especially after seeing you use a credit card. Her response: “There’s too much competition.” That’s a professional analysis for doing business which is all about location, location, location.
People in need are common on the streets everywhere these days. In my treks around town here I come across lots of people who ask for money or simply let their collection basket speak for them. One lady who appears too have cataracts and is immobile, sits near a grocery store. I gave her a dollar one day and thought I was generous. How miserly can I be? She is in her wheelchair at the exit to the national shrine of the Sacred Heart of Mary from 6 AM until at least 1 PM every Sunday. I hope she does well, but my hope emerges from my wish that someone else would help her and all this from the safety of my living room window.
I was in a parking lot of a Target store in Charleston, South Carolina. I was looking for the car when a gentleman approached and asked if had some spare change. To be honest, I didn’t and I told him so. I said, “Sorry, I don’t have a thing (a professional lie?).” He replied and most sardonically in the vein of humor, “I know what you mean.”
Through the years, I have heard many things about professional beggars. “They have more money than you do.” Maybe so. “They should get a job.” Maybe so. My thinking is that it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round. Whatever circumstances people find themselves in, there will always be a beggar…maybe in you, maybe in me, maybe in them. I think it takes a lot of strength to sit in a wheelchair outside the gate of a church, to stand at freeway exits and grocery store parking lots. I give a little in hopes that other people do the same thing. In such a way, we are supporting the local economy because the money we give goes somewhere. Where the contribution goes is not my business.