Throughout the Recession Roadtrip, people I've spoken to regularly cite the increase of panhandlers as a prominently visible representation of these economic times. Many have also expressed suspicion that those begging for money aren't as desperate as their appearance and hand-lettered signs might suggest. I decide to ask an admitted longtime panhandler how the recession has affected his "profession."
"My name is Erik, but most people call me Irish," he says in a lilting brogue. Erik hails from Drogheda, Ireland, just north of Dublin, but has lived in the United States for 23 years. The past eight he has spent in Portland, Maine, most days standing at the same intersection asking for spare change, though he does hold a green card.
I lure Erik away from his post with the promise of a $5 foot-long sandwich from Subway. Visible below the band of his olive green Christ Church baseball hat, I can see fringes of ginger hair matching his ruddy skin and bloodshot eyes. Erik follows me to Subway, but haltingly--freezing with a look of wide-eyed terror every time I turn around to say something, as if he suspects I've offered him dinner as a ruse, and might turn to attack him at any moment.
The skittish behavior continues inside Subway, though his fear has become visibly tinged with shame. Erik refuses to near the counter, whispering to me that they'll kick him out. He reminds me of a starving feral cat, whose anticipation of food creates inner turmoil while hypersensitive instincts sound a danger alarm urging flight. This time, his hunger wins out. Biting into the chicken sandwich, Erik finally relaxes, joking that it tastes like turkey with gravy and stuffing to him.
According to Erik, Portland has seen a slight increase in panhandlers over the past year or two, while the generosity of those giving money has declined. But he rejects the notion that anyone would be feigning hardship to beg for money on the street, at least not in his domain. The town's longtime professional panhandlers simply would not allow fakes, particularly not during a time when earnings are down.
"We know who's on the street, who works which corner. If someone new shows up in town, we notice. If they leave after rush hour and sneak around the corner to get into a nice car, someone will see them and the elders will take care of things next time they show up on the street. We're not going to let someone commute from the suburbs to work our corners. That's against protocol," Erik explains.
Of course one could argue that Erik himself does not need to beg for money. Of the $20 he earns in a typical day, Erik freely admits to spending about half on "high gravity" beer. He is visibly drunk when I meet him. He usually tips back a couple of beers before going to "work," he says, so that he won't feel the condescending glares some people give when they drive past.
Erik has been technically homeless for eight years, though has lived in a free apartment provided by a non-profit social service program for the past three. I intend to detail Erik's personal history at greater length in a future piece discussing what the lessons of chronic homelessness can teach us about the potential for those made homeless by the recession. For my current purpose, I want to maintain focus on what he taught me about the profession of panhandling.
Like other street professions, longtime panhandlers try to exercise exclusive domain over their regular spot. Any new beggars must respect the territorial rights of those with seniority, or else they'll be run off, or worse, by the old-timers.
For years, Erik has worked the same intersection at the end of an exit ramp near the Greyhound station. Last month, after an uninformed newbie moved in while Erik was taking a bathroom break, "I had to give him a beatdown. That's my spot. He was against protocol and wouldn't move when I told him." Erik was just released from a 30-day lock-up for the scuffle.
After Erik finishes eating his sandwich, he thanks me repeatedly before scurrying off. I take a few minutes to flesh out some of my notes before packing up and heading to the car.
Outside, I wave towards Erik's spot before realizing the man standing there holds a sign claiming that he is a disabled vet. Someone invaded Erik's exclusive domain while he was talking to me. I look in every direction, but don't see my drunk Irishman anywhere. Either Erik decided to take off the rest of the day, or his 30 days in jail taught him to allow an occasional exception to panhandling protocol.