How Many Times

Here’s a story about a Saturday several weeks ago. Might have been months, actually, ’cause I don’t remember it being very cold on the day in question. I hesitate to relate the incident because I have a giant case of white-middle-class-gentrifying-bastard-guilt over stuff like this. You know what I’m sayin’. I’m just gonna go ahead and post it though, because part of why I post on this blog is to explore stuff that goes on in my head, and maybe someday somebody will read it and go “hey, I think that way too”.

So on this Saturday I walk down to the East Atlanta Village (where I live) to pick up my dry cleaning. I’ve never been to this dry cleaner, and so I’m surprised to discover that they don’t take credit cards, so I must walk to the bank and get cash. On my way to the bank, two black guys are arguing in the parking lot behind the pizza joint near the dry cleaner.

The first guy is a little bit older, and he is really pissed off at the second guy. He’s all got his dukes up and shit, and is like “come on, motherfucker, let’s go” and his erstwhile sparring partner is like “nuh uh” ’cause he knows you shouldn’t get in fistfights when you have no health insurance, and starts to walk across the street. I know he’s heading for me, and I’m right. I have excellent timing, I must say. There seems to be a high percentage of intersection between when I’m walking and when a panhandler is walking. Or maybe it’s the panhandlers who have the excellent timing.

He just ambles over, like he doesn’t realize how threatening he is. He probably doesn’t. It’s not a racist thing, at least I don’t think so. If a dissheveled white guy ambled at me in similar fashion, I’d feel threatened (and have; hey it’s the city). If a black guy in nice clothes was doing the ambling, I’d think he was coming over to ask for directions. If a woman of any stripe was moseying towards me, I wouldn’t feel threatened. Someday that might get be mugged, but there it is.

Anyway, I’m all “is this guy going to mug me or just ask for money” calculating my odds and what I’d have to do to get some attention should he go the violent route. He just asks for money, but he gets too damn close in the process. How unfortunate to be reduced to begging *and* be a close-talker, making 80% of your marks even more uncomfortable than the standard keeps-a-polite-distance panhandler. I wave him off, not making eye contact, staring at the ground. I just want to get my drycleaning, and my lunch.

So I go to the bank, I walk back to the cleaners, I pay them a surprising amount of money, I get my clothes. I’ve parked in the lot the two fellows were bellowing in, and I put my clothes in the trunk of my car before I go in the back door of the pizza joint. Before I get to the joint’s door, the same dude comes over, asking me for money.

I wave him off again, thinking “wtf, man, I’m wearing a bright red t-shirt and film-student glasses, you couldn’t remember I’ve already said no?”

Of course he couldn’t. I probably wouldn’t either, in his position. He sees me as a blur with a white face, a target for a simple question with a slim chance for positive response. I feel like I’m being racist when I have this thought, but sometimes it just seems like as a white guy I get a lot more attention from panhandlers. Is my white guilt that obvious?

So I go in and have a couple slices of pizza, eating food that I could easily have shared with this homeless guy. I never said I didn’t have money to give him, I just said “no.” For a good ten minutes of my lunch, a whole TEN MINUTES, that white guilt that rests so prominently on my sleeve pipes up and I contemplate getting a slice to go to give him when I leave. I even go so far as to reckon he’d need a drink to go with it, but then where would he go to the bathroom? Sometimes I need a can of Raid for the bees in my head.

I finish my lunch, and I decide not to get that slice to go. I leave through the back door and go out to my car. Some jackass in a BMW has parked about 12 inches from my driver’s side, obviously wishin’ and hopin’ for a nice insurance check when I’ve Hulked out and overturned his stupid car.

I’ve squeezed into my car and am about to start it up when that same guy comes up to my window and taps on it. And it’s not like I’m the only car in the lot. And he also has to squeeze between my car and the BMW. What are the odds he just wants to point out that I have a flat? I shake my head, he goes away. “Jesus,” I think.

As I drive away annoyed and, of course, ashamed, it occurs to me that if I had more business in the area, perhaps going to have some copies made at the East Atlanta Copy shop, or buying some nails at Ace Hardware, maybe getting my nails done or some hair extensions at the boutique, that this guy would have kept bugging me for money all damn day. Maybe that’s why the other guy was so pissed at him.

After that day, I saw the guy a bunch of times around the area. He asked me for money several more times, although less intelligibly each time. Eventually I stopped seeing him. Maybe he wasn’t having much luck and moved on. That’s what I’ll choose to think.

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2 comments

  1. I ride public transport in Atlanta, a city with an 80% black population and a lot of cars. I’m often sharing the train with 4 white guys and 60 black people.

    If there’s someone asking for money, he may skip people here or there, but he always, always, always asks the white folks. I guess there are plenty of guilty white people out there and the beggars know it.

    But being a guilty white guy is different from having “white guilt.” That’s one thing about your post that’s interesting to me. You point out that a dishevelled white guy would put you on your guard about the same amount, so it’s probably not a race thing. But you seem to miss that a poor white guy asking for money would have made you feel about as guilty.

    Seems to me that neither reaction was about race. Your guilt wasn’t white-guilt at all. It was just good old-fashioned guilt.

  2. It’s true. Should I modify it to “middle-class” guilt? Does Bill Gates feel this times like a bazillion? It’s a kind of pressure that maybe either finds some kind of equilibrium, as it sort of does in me, or it blows up in one way or another. Intensive volunteerism, say, or the opposite, the head-in-the-sand version of Conservatism.

    Although I’m sure a case can be made that I have head-in-the-sand Liberalism.

    As a Liberal, I’m about Society, with a capital S, taking care of its members, so I don’t balk at taxes really. We’ve talked about that before. And I don’t consistently refuse panhandlers, although it’s fairly rare that I’ll give in. So it’s less of an overall guilt than an in-the-moment sensation where I”m like “I could totally take that poor guy out to dinner, but I’m not going to because it would inconvenience me and create all sorts of other trouble I’m not prepared to deal with. But I could. I could probably rent him a room and get him a shower and so on and so forth. This particular individual. But I’m not going to.”

    And there’s all sorts of logical, practical reasons why it doesn’t make sense for me to do something like that, but it doesn’t negate the feeling. Doesn’t stop it. But as for it being “white” guilt, it probably DOES indicate some kind of racism in my makeup, since I’m obviously making an assumption about who is going to be a panhandler and who isn’t.

    It’s all too complex. Next post will be all about the Care Bears.

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