Moodswing - The Beggar

Who wouldn’t beg under the right circumstances?

I thought begging was behind me. For example, there’s a panhandler who has staked out the freeway onramp where I live. He shuffles around, dragging tatters behind him and sporting a ragged cardboard sign that says, “Hungry. Homeless. Help Me. God Bless.” The words are scratched out weakly, like those you’d find on the underside of a coffin lid of somebody buried alive. In fact, the beggar very much reminds me of a mummy, not the kind preserved with meticulous ceremony, but the kind you find in peat bogs by accident thousands of years after they died there, snake bit.

“He’s a superb specimen,” I say to myself in a scientist’s accent every time the beggar limps near to peer into my car window. His remaining teeth are the color of old mustard, his eyes are vacuous, his stature is bent, defeated, and his skin is stretched across his bones like dried hide. He truly looks like he’s rotting right before my eyes.

It’s a great act, and I’d fall for it if I hadn’t seen the other side of him. When a cop car pulls up, the cultivated deadness in the beggar’s demeanor disappears at once. In fact, he brightens like a birthday candle as he beats a hasty escape, darting between the cars with the agility of a basketball player. Oh, so that’s what this is, I realized when I first saw him do that, all this begging is just his gig.

Some people are good at it, I guess. Not me. I tried panhandling as a child, after accidentally hitting pay dirt one day while loitering at a department store with my sisters. Earlier that morning we’d discovered a mud pool inside a massive concrete pipe abandoned by city workers, and we’d played waist deep in it all day, and I suppose we looked so pathetic that a woman felt compelled to compensate us for it, bestowing a dollar in my palm like the touch of a wand.

This is great, I glowed, figuring I’d found my life’s vocation. So for the next few days I moped pitifully about in public places, projecting, in my mind, such a convincing image of sadness and deprivation that more money would surely fly at me from people’s wallets like foam from a can of shaken Shasta. I tried to exude the weight of the ages on my tiny shoulders, and audibly sighed so often I got dizzy from hyperventilation. None of this garnered a single additional dime, though, so eventually I had to go back to selling cupcakes door to door.

So you’d think that lesson would have seared itself into my psyche after that, but remarkably that wasn’t the last time I’d fail at begging. Later there’d be a boy in high school I’d foolishly fall in love with, placing the future of my miniscule universe on the cusp of his upturned mouth, hoping to attach myself to the fleeting coattails of all of his hopes and dreams, of which he had many.

But sadly I’d been relegated to part of the small-time trap he ached to escape, so he drove me home one night and, fairly unceremoniously, proceeded to dump me like a load of toxic waste. I begged him, with heaving sobs, to take me with him, but my groveling only strengthened his resolve, as it should have, I suppose. I don’t remember if he had to physically pull me out of his car or what, but looking back at my absence of dignity, I don’t see how else I would have left. So he must have pulled me out, yes, and then pulled away. In every sense pulled away. Watching him leave, one lucid thought bubbled to my brain as I stood on the curbside blubbering: “I bet the begging,” I berated myself sardonically, “was a real turn-on.”

So like I said, I thought begging was behind me. I would rather die than beg, I’ve thought lots of times in the past decade. But lately that conviction has begun to crumble, mostly because of what I’ve read lately. Take Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal writer who was slaughtered on video in Pakistan. His baby was due to be born in a few months, and I read he begged his abductors to let him live. And then there was United flight 93, the only Sept. 11 plane crash not to incur ground casualties. Recently authorities played the cockpit tape for bereft family members of the lost passengers, and I read one of the most disturbing aspects of the tape was the sound of a woman heard in the background of the commotion, begging for her life.

All this makes me consider the arrogance of people, me in particular. Rather die than beg? If it were me, with my life in someone else’s palm, put there by evil or other circumstances, teetering on being dismissed with one gassy-assed breath from my abductor, it would take me less than a second to assess the lovely shit basket that has become my life — the struggles, the failings, the loves both lost and found, the dreams both broken and not so broken, the tiny toehold of happiness I’ve finally managed to carve out for myself — it would take me less than a second, I tell you, and I would be begging.??