A red light caught me on the freeway access road before I could flee the beggar’s imploring gaze. Houston crawls with them, more than any city I’ve known. Most are white, male and middle-aged -- my own demographic. Often they defy stereotype and appear clean, well-groomed and mannerly. The guy with whom I shared a red light on Wednesday wore pressed blue jeans, a white T-shirt and running shoes. William Mayhew taxonimized beggars in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and said this sort “`pose’ themselves for the admiration of the thrifty matrons, who are their best supporters.”
His cardboard sign was terse: “Homeless Vet.” The real pitch was his demeanor – cocked head and steady, passive-aggressive gaze. It said: “I’m like you. How can you resist?”
I resisted. Bill Vallicella has covered this thoroughly, but still I feel unsettled. I’m not cheap. My instincts tell me to help a friend or deserving stranger. However, I’m suspicious not only of the beggar but of myself. I’m not above giving him a buck so I can congratulate myself on the generosity of my spirit. X.J. Kennedy, who celebrated his eighty-second birthday on Aug. 21, suggests in “The Withdrawn Gift” (In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007) that he would understand:
“The homeless on the sidewalk said
As we walked by, Wish I was dead?
“And sat back in his self-made pond
Of piss. Your eyes flashed, Don’t respond.
And so the quarter in my hand
I’d meant to toss him didn’t land.
Denying him, I felt denied
A swig from that brown-bagged bottle, pride.”