In the art of panhandling, as in warfare, strategy and tactics decide the victor. When you panhandle in the name of someone else, the stigma surrounding begging fades into the background, and people seem more willing to part with their hard-earned dollars.
On a constant and consistent basis, I see the less fortunate among us at highway off-ramps, imploring drivers to help them get home, get some food, get some blessings from God. Often these poor souls seem to be at their wits end, sometimes they are smirking, and always there is an unspoken pressure when the light turns red and you’re stuck, staring at a person in need. Are they really in need? Are they scamming you for a shot of sweet alcoholic release? We wonder about it, and pray for our own release in the form of the green light, hoping our kids don’t ask us why we didn’t help that man. It’s a powerful tonic, guilt, and it’s chaser is often anger at the intrusion into our own personal space.
And so, once a year, I turn the tables.
I get dressed in my firefighting pants, throw on a department tee shirt and hold a rubber boot out for mall shoppers to help raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, commonly known as “Jerry’s Kids”. For a couple of days I get to look into the eyes of the shoppers, to wordlessly implore them to reach into their change trays and help the innocent victims of a terrible disease. Today, The Outlaw Trucker, The Pimp and I spent about four hours selling the imagery of firemen for The Kids.
It works like magic, but one has to be careful.
When you wear the gear, when you go out as a representative of the fire service, people aren’t throwing money in your boot because they think YOU look good. They throw it in because they like the idea of firefighters and what they represent; if we’re willing to say you oughta donate to this worthy cause, then it carries a certain cache with it. More importantly it carries a responsibility. We might see it as a chance to broil our backsides off in the sun and laugh and joke and shamelessly flirt, but deep down, we’re hoping you see it as worth your time and money. It’s a gamble, putting your image as a public servant out there for people to toss pennies at – but one look at how much money firefighters nationwide raise for this cause gives heart to those of us flailing around in the heat. It’s days like this that invoke intense pride in our chosen profession, when you realize that countless firefighters across the country, career and volunteer, union and unrepresented, are all working for such a worthwhile cause.
The most telling detail of the Boot Drive, and one that never fails to amaze me, is that those people whom you’d cross the street to avoid – the thugs, the beat-down, those with the appearance of nothing to give…..they are the ones who never fail to put what they can in the boot. And the people in the very finest automobiles? They’re the ones who roll up the windows and hurriedly pick up their cell phones so as to avoid eye contact. And that’s okay – people should only give if they feel it is worth their time.
Standing in the sun and begging for your loose change is certainly worth mine.