Tuesday, October 7, 2014

WILL WRITE FOR FOOD

There is an article online about a man getting enraged when he discovered a 78 year old beggar driving away in a new car after accepting his donations. He was angry his hard earned money benefited someone driving a nicer car than he could afford. He complained he could have used that money to put gasoline in his own car to get him to work. (Like he had to walk to work because he gave away his gas money).

It’s easy to understand his frustration. We all work hard for our money. No one wants to see someone else spending their hard earned money on something they could never afford to purchase for themselves. No one wants to give anything to someone that doesn’t really need it.


On the other hand, panhandling is hard work.

Those poor people suffer 100 plus degrees standing outside in the heat all summer. They endure long, cold, wet winters collecting only a few dollars an hour. They swallow their pride and sell their dignity for unreliable income. They are dependent upon the kindness of strangers who criticize them for using the money for anything more frivolous than a drink of water and a few morsels of three day old bread.

There are always going to be stories of people taking advantage of someone’s generosity. None of us want to hear the stories about all the poor starving children in America that aren’t getting help. Either their parents are too proud to beg, or too many people refuse to give to agencies designed to help because they are afraid it will be misused. But we are quick to jump on those occasional reports of abuse to justify our lack of generosity.

Donations often come with restrictions, ties, and instructions. “I’ll give you this dollar if you promise to buy food not alcohol.” Or “I’ll be happy to give you five dollars but I’m going to need a copy of your bank statements and tax returns for the last thirteen years, and a detailed financial plan for how you intend to spend the five bucks.”

Whatever happened to giving with a willing heart? If a person wants to be in control of how their donations will be spent then they should just stuff the money back into their pocket and drive on their selfish way. There is no law requiring anyone to help their fellow humans in need.   


Driving a new car doesn’t mean that poor old woman was taking advantage of the angry man’s conditional contributions. Someone could have given her the car. She might be living in that car. She could have borrowed it from a friend or family member.

I don’t know the details of how she came to be driving a new car, and frankly I don’t care. And neither should the cheap bastard who yelled at her for taking his fifteen dollars over five days.

Most people would hold out their hands, begging, if they couldn’t feed their children –or themselves-any other way. Most people will fight, and struggle, and even beg to keep their house and their car from being repossessed after they lose their job. The car is usually the last thing people will sell or give up to the collection agencies. They probably owe too much on it to get anything out of it. They can live in their car but they can't drive their house to a job interview.

That poor woman probably wouldn’t be risking her life standing on street corners, being verbally attacked by people, or chased down by angry men threatening to break out her windows, if she didn’t need the money. If she could collect enough from dwindling social security benefits to pay her utility bills and buy groceries she might not need to beg.

That guy didn’t know her circumstances and he didn’t care. He was more interested in screaming about being cheated out of something he gave away of his own free will. It’s not like she robbed him at gunpoint when he stopped at the red-light.  

What does any of this have to do with writing?

A writer must evaluate a story from more than one perspective. The online video and news report on this story portrays the beggar as the evil antagonist taking advantage of the naïve protagonist. Unfortunately the protagonist crossed the line when he chased down and threatened the little old lady, transforming her from villain to victim, and him from victim to villain.

If a character in a novel behaved so inappropriately he would instantly become the antagonist. Even if his outrage was justified the readers would be so outraged by a young man chasing an old lady down the street threatening to harm her that the writer would be forced to make him the bad guy.  

In the hands of a proficient author this story could go in at least a dozen directions.

It could be written as a heart wrenching, tear jerker about a widow who lost her husband shortly after buying that new car. He may have left her with nothing but debt. With all the couple’s assets tied up in probate, her house in foreclosure, and her greedy step children stealing everything not nailed down, the little old woman takes to the streets to raise retainer fees to hire an attorney and enough cash to keep her afloat until their joint bank accounts are released.

Or it could turn into a horror story. A man gives his last fifteen dollars to a panhandler on his way to work. The moment he arrives at his office he discovers his partner has embezzled all the company’s money and disappeared with his wife. Enraged, and probably homicidal, he discovers the beggar is as deviously dishonest as his partner and cheating wife. This could turn into a stalker, slasher, thriller.

Turn it around and have the old lady become the stalker.  

Consider the comedic side of the story. The little old lady could go after the angry man with a Gucci handbag filled with quarters. Or she could win over his sympathetic family and end up moving in with them.

What if she was an undercover writer researching the effect begging has on the psyche? Or undercover bait for a police sting to capture a perpetrator with a history of targeting genarian panhandlers?

Substitute a pretty young woman as the beggar and there’s a love story stewing under all that anger. Or go for the Harold and Maude angle.  

Maybe she’s an alien from another world who doesn’t understand the concept of money because it isn’t necessary on her planet. Maybe she commandeered the car because all vehicles are public property on her world. But when she gets hungry she discovers she needs money to buy food on Earth. She can’t get a job. She doesn’t have a green card. So she resorts to begging on street corners so she can purchase hamburgers rather than snack on the natives.  

The scenarios are endless.

The next time you drive by someone begging for money remember they all have a story. Some of them may be shady. Most of them are sad. Many of them could be your own story if you lost everything and found yourself begging on the street.

We all work for food. No matter what else we may spend our money on. It always comes down to food first, shelter second, luxuries last. Realistically anything other than food is a luxury. Too many Americans are oblivious to that reality.

Some people work long hard hours at, two or three, minimum wage jobs for their food. Others work in fancy offices, wearing stiff white collars, earning bonuses and driving shiny new company cars. Too many people work on street corners holding up signs claiming they will work for food. It’s actually honest, legal work. In some cases it pays better than multiple minimum wage positions. Occasionally it even pays better than that white collar job.

I will write for food. I’d rather write for money. I’ll take what I can get. Sometimes five dollars or a good meal is a real bonus in my profession.

Soon I may be forced to stand on the corners begging for money to support my writing habit. But I just came up with at least nine story plots from one headline. So for now, maybe I can keep writing for food.