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.