"What A Few Days of Panhandling Taught Me"

Written By

Denise Noe

With the help of Georgia Vocational Rehabilitative Services (GVRS), I had been conscientiously searching for a job for three years. My goal was a humble, minimum-wage, (probably but not necessarily) part-time job. I took tests measuring my talents, skills, and interests.  I was interviewed about my disabilities and my (limited) work history as well as my goals. I participated in “work evaluation” programs at an entity called the Bobby Dodd Institute and at a Goodwill.  GVRS professionals supplied me with appropriate clothing for job interviews that would have also been appropriate for an actual job. With the assistance of GVRS professionals, I created résumés. I put in a multitude of applications and went on many job interviews.

But after three years of searching, I had found no job. I remained in the non-paying limbo of “looking for work.”


Perhaps, I thought, it was time to try something else.


Before going further, I should mention that there are reasons I was unable to find employment. I am severely and multiply disabled and have been for most of my life. I have been diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder, impulse control disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and clinical depression. These problems negatively affect my concentration, my ability to remember things, and my general interactions with other people.


My disabilities have impacts beyond hindering my ability to find employment. At the time of the events recorded here, I was renting a room — and being evicted from it. The reason for the eviction was not that I had failed to pay my rent but that I had said and done things that offended my landlady. For example, I once discovered a large red growth in my armpit and feared I was dying. Terrified, I approached my landlady and told her what I wanted done if I suddenly died. “You’re being charged a fine for talking to me on my day of worship!” she exclaimed. I had forgotten that the day was a Sunday and she had previously told me I was never to speak to her because it was reserved for worship. Luckily, the growth I thought might be a death sentence was merely an ingrown hair. However, that incident, combined with similar incidents, led her to start eviction proceedings against me.


When contemplating what to try next, I could not help but think of the fact that people sometimes gave me money without my asking for it. For example, one day I was walking down the street when a woman stopped her car. She handed me a twenty-dollar bill and said, “Please tell me your name so I can pray for you.” When I was at a bus stop and a man I knew only by name asked how I was doing, I admitted I was not doing well. He took a five dollar bill out of his wallet and gave it to me. There had been other instances in which people handed me small amounts of money. There was an occasion on which a woman handed me a lunch and another on which a man handed me bottled water.


Why was this happening? “You often look kind of pathetic, Denise,” a friend told me. “Your clothes sometimes don’t fit well and look kind of worn.”


People had given me money without my asking for it. What would happen, I wondered, if I asked for it? I decided to give panhandling a try.


I got some cardboard and made a sign. I don’t recall the exact wording but it was something like: “I AM DISABLED AND JOBLESS. WILL YOU HELP?” I had already had one book published, The Complete Married… with Children Book: TV’s Dysfunctional Family Phenomenon, so I made a second sign: “I WILL SELL THIS BOOK TO ANYONE WHO HELPS.”


Carrying the cardboard signs, a blue plastic pan, and copies of my first published book, I headed to a bench in a well-frequented area. I sat down, a sign on either side of me and the pan by my feet. I brought along something to read.


People walked by . . . and walked by . . . and walked by . . . and walked by. I was there for about six hours. Not one person dropped so much as a penny into the pan. Not one person asked to buy a copy of my book. Not one person even talked with me or asked for more information.  I took the “begging props” and headed back to the room in which I lived — and from which I was being evicted.

Needless to say, I was depressed and discouraged. I could not work and earn money. Neither could I get anything from begging.

Then I thought: maybe it is because I did not actually ask for anything. Tomorrow I will try panhandling again but I will go up to people and ask them for help.


The next day, I went to a little strip mall. It had several businesses including the grocery store I most often frequented. I left the signs and plastic pan in my rented room. I took along a few copies of the book.


I went directly up to a man, showed him the book, and asked, “Would you be willing to buy this book — I wrote it myself — from me for three dollars?”


“I don’t think I’ll have time to read your book, but I’ll give you a couple of dollars,” the man answered. “I don’t think I have three dollars in cash but . . . here you can have this.” He handed me two dollars.


I saw a woman seated in the driver’s side of an unmoving vehicle. “Ma’am, would you buy this book from me for three dollars?” I asked. “I wrote it myself.”


“It looks like it could be interesting,” she said with a smile. “Yes, I’ll buy it from you.” She handed me three dollars and I handed her the book.


Then I thought: I’ve already gotten five dollars — enough to buy a meal! And all I had to do was to politely approach people and offer to sell them my book. Since this procedure had met with success, I repeated it. I was soon out of books so I just asked for money. This worked.


Although asking for money was succeeding, I decided to vary the approach just a bit. I went into the grocery store, picked out a food item, and asked other customers to buy it for me. It seemed to me that people were even more apt to buying a food item for me than they were to give me money.


I recalled an experience I had when I was in better circumstances. I sat on a bus stop and a young man was seated on the same bus stop. A raggedly dressed man went up to the youth and asked, “Would you have a dime you can spare?”


“No, sir, I don’t,” he answered.


The panhandler asked me the same question and I handed over some change.


When the beggar was out of earshot, I decided to tease the fellow who had refused. “Did you really not have a dime?” I asked, smiling broadly.


“My mother always told me not to give them anything because you don’t know what they’re going to do with it,” the young man explained. “He could use it to buy beer or something like that.”


I panhandled about three more days. I always went to the same strip mall. Outside the store, I asked for money; inside, I asked people to buy me food items. About half said no and the other half helped. Not once did I try to persuade someone who refused. When someone said, “No,” I said, “have a nice day” before moving on. I was not an aggressive panhandler.


I recall one time that I approached a man in a parked car and he asked a question I did not quite make out.


I started explaining about how I had searched for a job but had been unable to find one.


“I don’t want to hear the story,” he said. “I want to know what you will do with the money.”


“I’m going to buy saltines,” I said.


“Saltines?” he asked. It seemed like he was unsure as to what I meant.


“Crackers,” I answered. “They’re the same thing. My stomach has acted up recently and crackers settle your stomach down.”


The man handed me three quarters.


I took the quarters, then went into the store and, together with other money I had, purchased a box of crackers. The story I related was not a fib.


There was another occasion in which I requested someone buy me a microwavable meal and he said, “Why don’t you get another one and I’ll buy both for you?”


I did as he suggested and he did as he had promised.


I actually made a friend while panhandling. When I still had “extra” copies of the book I wrote — I wanted to save a single copy for myself — I approached a man and asked,


“Would you be willing to buy this — I wrote it myself — for three dollars?”


He paused and asked, “Do you really want me to have the book or do you just want the money?”


“I just want the money,” was my honest answer.


“I’ll give you a few dollars,” he said. He opened up his wallet and handed over some cash.


I believe he complimented my appearance, something like “You have pretty eyes,” and asked a few more questions about my situation. I told him about my failed job search and the eviction that was hovering over me.


The two of us chatted for a bit. We exchanged phone numbers and “Dan” treated me to lunch the next day. I made it clear that I was not available for a romantic/sexual relationship. Did he have an extra room — with a lock on it — that I could use for a month or so? He did not.


We have remained friends. For the purposes of writing this article, I asked him a few questions about panhandling and our encounter. “What do you usually do when a panhandler approaches?” I inquired.


“I usually ignore the person or shake my head ‘no,’” he replied.


“Why did you help me?”


“Number one, you were female and number two, you were polite.”


That gender played a role automatically leads to the possibility of an ulterior motive. “Did you help me because you expected we would have sex?”


“No,” he said.


“Why did you ask me to lunch?” was my next, and last, question.


“I liked you and I wanted to know more about you.”


Now I want to summarize my conclusions from a few days of panhandling. Many people say a person should work for his or her money, not beg for it. I agree. I sought the opportunity to work for my money and would have much preferred to do that. The opportunity was not available. For any disabled person, getting and keeping gainful employment can be a struggle. For at least some of us during some periods of our lives, it may not be possible.


Panhandling is by no means ideal but it is an option. Many disabled people take this option at one point or another in their lives. My experience was brief. Still, I can give some advice to other disabled people who might panhandle. Sitting beside a sign and waiting may not be the best way to do it, especially if the disability you have is not one that is immediately visible. However, aggressiveness is not a good idea either. It pays to be humble and polite in asking for assistance. a panhandler is well-advised to just accept “no” for an answer and move. Finally, I believe that requesting someone buy food or other necessities is a good idea as it means there is no concern that a person’s money is being used for “beer or something.”


Life can be viewed as a series of lessons. This is what I learned from a few days of panhandling.

Denise Noe is a severely disabled and struggling writer. Her ebook of literary criticism on Joyce Carol Oates, "Obsessions & Exorcisms in the Work of Joyce Carol Oates," was complimented by Oates herself. Noe's collections of true crime stories include "The Bloodied and the Broken," "Justice Gone Haywire," and "I Spy, You Spy, They Spy." She has a self-published ebook on amazon entitled "Voices from the Inside: Letters from Famous Prisoners" that includes reproductions of letters from notorious murderers including Charles Manson.