Brother, Can You Spare A Penny – How About 50 Dollars?


Street beggars have existed since the dawn of civilization.

As sure as currency exchange houses will try to take you for a fool, anyone who travels is bound sooner or later to be accosted by a street beggar. I don’t believe any country is free of the panhandlers. At least no country I’ve ever visited. And I’ve seen many.

Begging is prohibited in some places, but the beggars find creative and  inconspicuous ways to beg. To remain under the radar of the authorities, some try to blend into the larger population and stop you on the street, as a sweet grandmotherly type did to me recently in Warsaw. She did not fit the mold of a street beggar, just a little old lady on her way.

I’ve seen just about every approach. The begging tactics out there are as varied as the  number of beggars. Some will use the direct approach and simply ask you for some spare change. One guy once asked me for a penny, knowing that as soon as I reached into my pocket I would come up with more than a penny. He was successful at getting passersby to give him money, after all, who can’t spare a penny? But I’ve had people ask me for outrageous sums, often accompanied by a sob story, such as needing to get to the other side of the world to visit an ailing mother. One guy on the metro platform in Miami asked me for “$50 or whatever” I could afford to help him get to South Carolina to see his dying mother. I gave the guy a couple of dollars not knowing if his story was true or not, but it was $2 I could afford to give away. The very next evening, the same young guy asked me for $50 and the same story of his nearly departed mother. I reminded him that I had given him money the night before. “Oh,” he said. “Thanks” and move on to others. The very next day, same guy approaches me. I said “You’re kidding, right?” He did not remember me. And for weeks I saw the same guy telling people the same story. He was a young guy, about 22 years old, obviously running a game.

I remembered him when last week another a beggar in Warsaw asked me for 50 zlotys. That’s more than $16 by today’s exchange rate, or more than 12 euro. He had first tried to ask for money in Polish and when I told him I did not speak the language, he asked in English if I was American, and banking on the generosity and supposed wealth of all Americans, he upped the amount he wanted, from 5 to 50 zlotys. I’ve been in Poland long enough to tell the difference between 5 and 50, even without fluency in the language.

Over years of travel, I have had some interesting encounters with street beggars. Sometimes I give. Sometimes I just say no. It all depends on my mood and the beggar’s vibe or energy.

Sometimes I am happy that I said no to certain persons, such as a woman who was so verbally nasty after I said no to her demand that I give her a dollar. After I said “Sorry, I can’t help you,” she shouted directly to my face: “YOU BET YOUR SORRY!!”

In Warsaw, Poland, a woman on her knees, praying that her begging will pay off?

In Warsaw, Poland, a woman on her knees, praying that her begging will pay off?

Beggars don’t all necessarily want money. Some will ask for a cigarette or that you buy them food (which I am more apt to do than give money), while others just want to bum a cigarette. The first person who used the line  “why lie…I need a beer” was likely very successful because it was funny. It just doesn’t have the same impact it once had. New approaches often lose their punch with time and as they gain widespread usage around the world. Some adult beggars use their children to beg. I found this to be the case across much of South America. I didn’t like the way some of these mostly women forced their children to help them beg for money. To me it seemed abusive. In the state of Oregon in the United States, I once saw a young woman sitting on the sidewalk with a newborn baby, asking for money in front a downtown bank. It was in the city of Portland, and many – myself included – were concerned for the welfare of the child and tried to tell the young woman about various social services available to her. That only made her angry. She wanted money. She did not want to hear about anything else. “If you’re not going to give me money, please leave me alone,” she told me, quite indignant after I said I could try to help her get proper help. Others who tried were treated with equal disdain by the young woman. Who knows if that child was even hers, but fact it she showed no interest in getting off the street. Cash was her only interest.

Sometimes children themselves are the beggars. And some of them can be downright aggressive – probably facing the wrath of a parent or other adult should they not return with a fair amount of cash. Once in Harare, Zimbabwe,  I gave some loose change to a child beggar. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by more than a half-dozen other kids tugging at me and demanding money as well. One young girl who was about 7 or 8  years old grabbed and latched on to my left arm and refused to let go. I raised my arm and lifted her off the ground and she still would not release my arm. A local merchant, noticing what was happening, came out of his store and began to shove the kids away from me while screaming at them in their native language. I learned my lesson: If you’re going to give money to children on the street, make sure you know if there are any others around or be prepared for a full assault. Even handing out candy or pencils to children can create a mob scene.

Some beggars are truly in need while others are nothing more than truly skilled at convincing strangers to hand over their loose change. They know how to spin a tale or make you laugh and win you over in short order. But recently, I have noticed an approach in Europe that I have not seen anywhere else – not to say it isn’t happening anywhere else – just I haven’t seen it. That’s the beggar on his knees, arms stretched in front of him usually holding a cup. A slight variation on this is someone knelt in prayer.

On my recent trip to Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, I saw several beggars in this most humiliating of positions. Someone assuming this position sends a message that they are at your feet, low, not worthy. I find it dehumanizing and while it’s the least aggressive form of begging, it troubles me to see another human being assume that position.

In Prague, I dropped a few coins into the cup of one of these on-bended-knees beggars and he didn’t even rise to acknowledge. He didn’t even move. Not that I expected anything from him. It just struck me as curious.

My bottom line when it comes to street beggars is to give if I feel the person is sincerely in need. Of course, no way of telling if that is truly the case. But it leaves me with the feeling I’ve done something to help someone and when it’s all said and done, that’s all that really matters.

Categories: posts, travels | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Powered by

%d bloggers like this: