We Need Panhandlers to Tell Us the Truth

No more asking strangers for help. No more begging. It’s bothering us. We’re going to make it against the law.

Then we can issue municipal citations which people will be unable to pay. After a while, their unpaid fines will land them in jail where, at least, their housing problems can be temporarily solved.

Local Alderman Bob Donovan has decided that panhandling folks at intersections and freeway ramps are endangering the rest of us so he’s proposing a new ordinance to make it illegal. He held a press conference yesterday at a busy city intersection to make his point. I think the panhandlers probably adjourned to another corner for the day.

Because I work on homeless issues, folks think I’m a sucker for homeless people. Sometimes. Not always. Do I think every homeless-looking person holding a cardboard sign at an intersection or freeway ramp is actually homeless? No, not necessarily. Do I think every homeless-looking person who gets $5 from a driver idling at the light is running off to buy fresh veggies at the farmer’s market? No, not necessarily.

Do I roll down my window and give money to folks who give me that earnest, help me look? No, not very often. Once in a very great while. One reason is that it’s impossible to dig my wallet out of the bottom of my purse, open it, find a $5 bill and hand it to the sign-holding person before the light changes. Another reason is that I like my charity to occur in an audited world. I give money to organizations that are responsible, frugal and outcome-driven.

Then I don’t have to engage in stupid conversations with people who maintain that ‘homeless people are just using the money they get panhandling to buy crack.’ Whatever. If you believe that, then don’t give them money. It’s that simple.

When I have given a homeless person money, it’s been a face to face request on the street when I’m walking somewhere. Something about the person strikes me as genuine. I see myself or my kids or people I’ve known and loved in the past in their eyes. I see a person, a comrade on earth, someone wearing a ‘there but for the grace of God’ t-shirt, I see my good fortune and life luck having been randomly dropped on me, I see unfairness and bad breaks heaped on someone, I see that it doesn’t matter if I give the person $5 or not, it won’t make a difference in the big scheme of things, I see that for 10 seconds, the air around us can be kind and unquestioning.

Banning panhandling is, in my book, a homeless-hating initiative. It’s okay to be homeless but only if you’re unobtrusive about it. To me, the message is really ‘let’s ban the poor.’ Well, in Milwaukee, where we have close to 30% of the population living under the poverty line, where, year after year, we take our place among the country’s poorest cities, that will be making a whole lot of people outlaws.

So what’s next? Banning sleeping in public parks? Ticketing unlicensed grocery carts used on city sidewalks? Going after the overloaded bicycles with trash bags filled with cans hanging from the handlebars? Let’s just cut to the chase and make it illegal to be homeless. Why mess around with half measures?

I say people holding signs begging for money are our city’s canaries In the mine shaft. They’re telling us that what we’re doing to deal with poverty and homelessness isn’t working. They are our human outcome measures.

It’s hard, boring, demeaning work. They deserve to get paid.

Late to the Party

Late to the party. If I leave a half hour early, that gives me more time to figure out how to be late.

I walk into the classroom, five minutes early I figure. But all the students are there, turning to look at me, a little startled, both of us. I think right away that I’ve interrupted a class activity that had run over but no, there are the other panel members, all seated, in mid-phrase, already having ingratiated themselves with their young audience.

Oh, there she is, making an entrance. No, there she is, having miscalculated, misread, misinterpreted for the millionth time. It’s fine. I don’t care. Except that I’d planned to be early so my hearing could adjust. The first fifteen minutes in any new setting means a hearing black-out as it were, voices that are buzzy, indecipherable, the looks accompanying the words pointed and expectant.

They stop what they’re talking about and turn to me. They ask questions. What is the question, I wonder? I see them all waiting, students and other panelists alike. What would the question be right now? Of course, who am I? That is the question. I answer the question hoping that is the question. We will never know. Or care.

The students are in an evaluation class taught at a women’s college in town, one of the very few remaining women’s colleges in the universe but incredibly successful and a place that I love dearly even though I attended a distinctly non-women’s university across town. The students are prepared with questions submitted to their professor, my friend and colleague who that night was still in Japan on an extended trip.

Each of us on the panel has a list of their questions but the students are asking them randomly. As the discussion begins to flower, I take to the little stage that is provided by my age and experience and my love of being or appearing to be smart and irreverent. Young people like nothing better than an older person with attitude.

The questions are about evaluation of social programs, problems that arise in obtaining good data, how to negotiate relationships.  My greatest attribute in this discussion is my age and the assurance that oddly comes with it. You lose many things getting older but you’re compensated with a sense of presence and entitlement that feels like the most expensive pair of leather gloves you have ever dared put on your hands. They are yours and yours alone. Oh, so luscious. You wait, younger reader, someday, you can wear the gloves if you are lucky.

One of the students in the back row asks a question I just so barely hear but I glean has to do with encountering gender bias as an evaluator. We used to call this sexism, as in so and so is a sexist pig. Now I guess he or she would be a gender bias pig. It doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Have you ever encountered gender bias, the student asks.  The woman next to me answers first. She is 27.

When she is done, I answer next. Mostly because the difference between her 27 and my 66 is too incredibly huge to ignore. This is also luscious, I think.

So I start to tell the young women in the class about being their age and sitting in meetings with colleagues and feeling like I was the only person who could hear the sound of my own voice. I tell  them about feeling marginalized, about being marginalized, and how it compelled me to go back to school and get a Ph.D. so people would hear me when I spoke and how getting a Ph.D. changed things but it mostly changed things in my own mind because everywhere I go including this classroom on this night I wear my Ph.D. like a cloak, an incredible, extraordinary cloak that makes me invincible. And in telling them this, I churn up inside and swallow again all the times I convinced myself I didn’t know what I was doing, the times I knew everyone in the room was smarter than me, I eat that again like a new lunch made from ingredients freeze-dried for thirty years.

Does it happen anymore, the student asks?

Maybe, I don’t know, I answer.

I can’t be bothered with that. I just can’t be bothered with that anymore.

I wave my gloved hand. I’m done with that, I say.

Dear Young Mom

woman holding baby

Dear young mom,

You look at me and see a grandmother who had her chance. You figure what I could tell you about being a mother would begin and end with a rotary phone. Nothing I know would apply now in this whole different world, more enlightened, informed, nutritious.

You would be wrong. I can tell you things that I could only know now after 42 years of being a mother. They are things that your best mom friends couldn’t possibly know, things your own mother knows but doesn’t tell you because she figures you wouldn’t get it, you’d roll your eyes like you were fifteen and say, “I know, Mother,” like you did in the kitchen when she told you breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

But I can tell you because I don’t know you.

First is the most important: Being a mother is a much longer game than you realize. You are never finished. Your product is never complete. As long as you can blink once for yes and twice for no, your children are orbiting your planet. Even when they say they’ve spun away, even when other people love them, even when they are too old to cry for their mother, they want what only you have to give to them. You will be dead a long time before they stop wanting what you had to give them. Even in that last second of life, what you do or say can change the course of their history. Silence or a word.

Second is this: The person you are matters more than what you do for your children. There is a reason ducklings follow their mother everywhere. It is how they learn to see and interpret the world. How she sees it is how they see it, the routes she takes along the lake shore, they take. They hide where she hides, take the chances she decides are good risks. If you tell your child to be brave and stand up to a bully while you let your husband berate you for spending too much money, it will be your cowardice that is remembered, not your tough words. Who are you besides their mother? Make that person someone to emulate.

And last: Your children’s lives will be better if they have many parents. If you have room in your heart for more than one child, then they have room in their hearts for more than one parent. But you need to get out of the way. Out of the way of their father, first and foremost. This is the hardest because the position of owning the last and final word in child-raising has been women’s only power territory for centuries. We have other power now. Time to let go. Also time to let there be other pictures on the wall. The step-parents, aunts, uncles, mentors, the people who are part of your children’s constellations. You are a big star but not the only one. That your children love other people, have had other people parent them by whatever means, isn’t a sign of their disloyalty. It’s a sign of your wisdom.

So these are the three things I would tell you, young mom. Things I only know because I am 66 and have spent two-thirds of my life as a mother. The long view is the great surprise gift of aging, letting the movie run into many reels unedited. You might think the movie ends when you do, when you shut your eyes for the final time, your children standing around your bed murmuring about whether someone should call Aunt Ida and everything going dark until you see the great white light people always talk about. But the movie doesn’t end there. That’s the secret, dear young mom.

The movie never ends.


A Fine Pie

Jan Wilberg:

In honor of National Pi Day..

Originally posted on Red's Wrap:

Pies for sale

I’ll take pie and ice cream over cake and ice cream any day of the week and here’s why.

Pie has more personality and way more power.

I courted my husband with pie. He was getting over a bad break-up and living in a dusty upper flat in a bad neighborhood. He made a lovely veal scallopini but didn’t bake.

My first pie was apple. An old standby, I can make an apple pie anywhere in anyone’s kitchen. He was appropriately amazed.

Things started to heat up so I rustled up a cherry pie, weaving the top crust ever so nice and giving it a nice egg wash with sprinkled sugar. It was shiny and lovely.

On the Wednesday of our romance (you know, that day on week-long road trips when the charm is gone but you’re stranded several days from home?), I hadn’t heard from him for a while…

View original 286 more words

Highway Robbery


We were on the road to Carefree and then we turned left.

I saw Carefree on the map we got at the hotel and then decided to go there to take a picture of the sign at the city limits. Then I could say that I found carefree after looking for so long.

But we turned left and went hiking in Cave Creek Regional Park. It was lovely. Every desert plant on earth seemed to be blooming there. The air was perfect like Arizona air can be. Just clear and dry, a little breeze, not hot yet, that would come later in the afternoon when the sun would seem like a poker pulled out of a Christmas fire, ruining what was sublime a few hours before.

I imagined Carefree as a dusty town on a little stream that gushed in the spring and went dry in the summer. There’d be some houses in Carefree, not too many, and a place to buy gas and Diet Coke. Maybe there’d be a couple of smallish trailers permanently parked and maybe they’d have flowers growing out of old tires made into planters. One of the trailers would have a hundred wind chimes hanging from a clothesline, dogs would be barking and someone would be selling fresh oranges from the back of a truck.

But I could tell from how nice the road was, how clean and tidy the signs, that Carefree was a made up thing, not a real one. It had things that would make people feel carefree like new houses, a lot of great shopping and fabulous views from every window, every moment, every angle ripe for photos. No rust.

I love rust. I have a thing for rust. I thought if there was ever a place that would have plentiful rust, it would be Carefree but I was wrong about that. There’s no rust in Carefree. I know that without even going there.

I will just have to keep looking.


Cleats clicking on the sidewalk

New uniforms over high school underwear, new socks belonging to the team

A bat a cane for the old coach still in the game, telling what’s next to listeners

Hands shaking and shaken, trash talk polite in the pre-season, balls flying, caught

All  handsome with hope, those defeated, those riding high with no end in sight

Fundamentals of starting over drilled, drilled, drilled and remembered

–At Milwaukee Brewers spring training, Maryvale, AZ


The Incredible Beauty of Typing Class

Typing class

High school was a vast sea of uncomfortableness. Every day a variation on that theme. Always a part of me off, the limits of my wardrobe a burden I felt every ten days as I waited to wear the teal skirt and sweater set that was my best outfit. I ironed my blouse in the kitchen, the cord of the iron laying across the cold burners of the stove, the rest of the house dark, my mother still sleeping, my father gone to work hours earlier. I would toast an English muffin, butter it with oleo and sit at the slim counter facing the wallpapered wall. It was like dining in a phone booth with the accordion door shut. Airless and soundless.

The high school was huge, located in a Detroit suburb growing so fast that, for a while, students attended in two shifts. And then the school expanded and everyone attended in one big shift. Halls and halls of lockers and classrooms, so big that there were places in the building I heard referred to that I’d never seen. It sounds queer but it was so much like me. I came to school in the morning and went to the places I was supposed to go. I went to my classes and, after my classes, I went to the pool for Swim Club. In the pool, I practiced ballet legs and holding my breath, two of the key elements in synchronized swimming. Even when I swam I was uncomfortable, conscious of my extreme not fitting in, true even when linked in a chain of girls, my yearning to be less off coming close to drowning me much of the time.

Except in typing class.

My father insisted that I take typing class in high school and, later, he would insist that I take shorthand in college. He said that if I could type and take shorthand, I could always find a job. This depressed me although I could see his point. At the time, I wanted to be a political columnist. I never told him that.

Taking typing class meant that I would be with the students who were going to be typing for a living. They weren’t the students who were taking trigonometry but I wasn’t taking trigonometry either so, in many ways, I belonged in typing class. I wasn’t great in anything. But I could type. Like a bat out of hell, as my father would say. Like a bat out of hell.

I sat at a typing table directly in front of the typing teacher’s desk. Our desks touched. Mr. Krause was a short guy with dark, very short hair and horn-rimmed glasses. Like every other male teacher, he wore a tie and plaid sport coat every day, never varied. He wrote the typing assignments on the chalk board and then sat at his desk, his hands folded or sometimes drumming a pencil to a beat in his head.

He picked a fight with me every day. Don’t you think that Lyndon Johnson is a terrible president? Don’t you think the war in Vietnam should be expanded to include all of Southeast Asia and China? If the John Birch Society walked in here right now, would you sign up?

Because I could type like  bat out of hell, I always got the assignments done before everyone else. Then I sat with my arms folded on top of my typewriter and argued with Mr. Krause. It was the only time in my entire high school career that I felt totally and completely at ease. We were in our own little political debate club, a bubble that happened to be floating in typing class. What was happening with all the girls who weren’t uncomfortable all the time, the boys in their letter jackets, the students running for Student Council and the ones rushing to Yearbook meetings didn’t matter to me. None of them ever argued with Mr. Krause. They thought he was just a typing teacher. They didn’t take typing. They took trigonometry.

Typing class made me feel like a person of substance. It was my amazing luck to be sitting across from Mr. Krause for an entire year, my senior year in high school. Mr. Krause taught me how to type and how to hold my own. I’m thanking him now almost fifty years later.

Mr. Krause

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “We Can Be Taught!.”