in DC: the picture I didn’t take

I’m sure we all could create just as many entries as there are over on Unphotographable about the pictures we didn’t take, but one I didn’t take this morning triggered a memory from years ago.

blog quoted in Express on july 24 2008

I was waiting on the light to cross 16th Street and I saw one of our neighborhood beggars. She’s a more recognizable character since she’s always on crutches and has no fear about heading out into (usually stopped) traffic to go from window to window asking for a little help. When I first saw her, she was a figure of pity, but now it’s more annoyance because she stands out in the street, sometimes blocking traffic and buses to panhandle.

So this morning I’m waiting to cross and I see her standing, on her crutches, next to the bus shelter across the road. She’s not begging from passing cars this morning, she’s fiddling with something in her hands. I look closer and she’s counting a rather sizable wad of cash. I don’t know if they were big or small bills, but with the size of that roll, it didn’t matter. I tried to get my camera on her, but cars kept passing and she kept looking up and around and the last thing I needed was a “crippled” homeless woman on my case before going to work.

It just took me back to a very similar incident when I was visiting a friend in San Francisco. He pointed out a disheveled man on a street corner doing the exact same thing and mentioned that the guy was a regular. I figured nice non-work if you can stomach it and it was the first time I realized that these men and women are able to really rake in a nice daily haul working the pity angle.

Mt. Pleasant/Columbia Heights has more than its fair share of regulars, especially with the local mens’ shelter, but I’ve lived in the area off & on for over 10 years and they’re the same people! Some are real characters, there’s this one guy that is always very well dressed and clean, has all his stuff strapped to a bicycle and is generally just walking around or sitting in a park. I have never seen him bother a soul. There are others that I’ve seen every single day, even given them money and sometimes food in the past only to be hit up the very next day. I’ve been handed cards explaining the person doesn’t speak English and has a large number of kids to feed. I’ve been followed down the block by someone in a Rascal, which just confounded me.

It’s a different class than you might find downtown or in business areas. No one asks the time or directions, only to tell you that they were just released from prison and don’t have enough metro fare to get home. No one stakes a claim, sitting on the street with a sign detailing their plea. Only one time, when I still had my car, did someone give me a story I hadn’t heard since Philly, “My daughter’s in the hospital in a nearby city and I just need cab/bus fare to get to her.” The late-night guys in Philly could come up with some seriously good tales.

I do feel bad, and I donate clothes and money to charities that help out people in need, but after a while you stop feeling bad or guilty and just become hardened to it. Especially when you see the same people after a decade and it appears that there’s been no change at all except for the bits of it that occasionally fall into their hands.

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