Tonight was an evening spent with Youngest at Disney’s John Carter on Mars, one of the rare exceptions that I bent the rule on taking a child to a PG-13 movie before their 13th birthday. The action and special effects were excellent, but we spent some time sitting in the seats afterwards as I explained some of the background for the thousand year conflict in which the hero suddenly found himself. When we left the theatre at 10:30 and entered the parking lot, I found myself, and Youngest, alone and being stopped by a panhandler with a sad tale of woe and in search of bus fare. What to do? What do you do in one of those distinctly unpleasant situations when you’re with your child?
As he approached, I stopped and he at least had the common sense to stop several feet away and not close any further. He immediately went into his story about being stranded and in need of bus fare to somehow make it home to another county, despite being more than three miles from our local bus station. As he plunged onwards into the story, I stood between him and Youngest and simply told Youngest to immediately go back into the lobby to wait for me. The boy, who recognized that something was wildly amiss, complied without question and I heard him walk back.
The panhandler was probably in his early twenties, with a closely shorn head and a poor growth of beard upon his chin and cheeks. He was dressed in a loose camo jacket and a baseball cap worn askew on his head. He had a sunken, haggard appearance and as the old expression goes, looked like he’d been ridden hard and put away wet. My frank opinion was that he was a junkie looking for his next hit. Before he could get further along, I simply pulled out my wallet and removed $6 with the comment that that was all that I could spare. He took the money and thanked me, then actually removed his own driver’s license to show that he was legitimate; I have no idea as to whether it was a real or fake ID and frankly couldn’t have cared less at that moment. He muttered about the embarrassment of his situation, then turned and walked off. After seeing him move off into the next row of cars, I turned and returned to the theatre where Youngest was waiting for me in the lobby.
I asked him if he understood what had just happened and he admitted that he wasn’t clear, so I explained. We spoke briefly, then at further length in the car, about panhandling and the fact that many of these stories weren’t true, but intended to elicit sympathy. In the ideal world, we recognize it for what it is and decline, politely at first and more forcefully if necessary. But in the ideal world, you aren’t accompanied by a child and this guy was smart enough to understand that his success rate rose in the presence of a child.
When we got home, he did what kids do and immediately launched into the story to his mother. We talked about the situation and I have to agree with her that my acquiescence in forking over a few bucks has reinforced his belief that panhandling parents is more profitable than other targets. Likewise, she acknowledged that I had a good point in handling as I did. Ultimately, Youngest stayed safe and the guy took off as soon as he got some cash. I might even have handled it differently had Middle or Eldest been along instead of Youngest, provided that he’d even had the nerve to approach two or more full-sized people.
There’s a preferred way to handle unpleasant situations like panhandling, and giving over a few bucks isn’t preferred. But having to contend with it while worried about your child’s safety often means that the optimal case isn’t practical in the moment. Time and locale matter and the middle of a crowded city street is different than a darkened late evening parking lot. The best that I could do – as I quickly considered it – was to simply move Youngest out as quickly as possible and avoid any reason for a potential conflict. Yes, I’m frankly embarrassed but Youngest is now safely tucked into bed and tomorrow, when we’re both fresh, we’ll touch base about it again to learn what can be learned.