I ran into a beggar on LaSalle Street the other day and I was about to suggest to him that he get a job, but then it occurred to me he has a full-time job already.
Because, really, how different is his workday from the guy who stands in front of the donut shop with a sign announcing free coffee when you buy a dozen donuts? Well, lots of ways, as it turns out, and none of them is particularly good.
Both the guy hawking donuts and the beggar are outside all day, through rain and snow and heat and gloom of night, subject to the vagaries of weather and the catcalls from passing motorists. Both of them have limited advancement opportunity and neither is getting a pension. But the guy in front of the donut shop gets minimum wage, or maybe $300 per hour in the current labor market, and nobody yells at him if he goes into the store to use the bathroom. Also, sometimes, free donuts.
The beggar, though, is in sales, not marketing, and he’s working strictly on commission. His product is an intangible, but there’s a real delivery of value when someone makes a purchase. For me and everyone else who coughs up a buck or two, the beggar gives us the opportunity to feel better about ourselves. We get to think of ourselves as good people, moral, charitable, upright, the kind who get into heaven. Hey, God!! Are you watching this or what?
Of course, he’s also selling hubris, which is always in demand. We all think we live in God’s grace, but we also want to believe we aren’t like him because he made bad choices and we didn’t. And, man, are we kidding ourselves on that one. At various points in my life, I was probably three drinks or two hours at a slot machine distant from a life on the street. I have no idea what my tipping point was, but I have no doubt I've been on the guard rails more than once over the past decades. When I see a beggar, though, I can comfort myself with the notion that he is weaker, he made worse choices, he is less than I am.
All this emotional healing is very cheap, a virtual steal in today’s market. For the same money I’d spend by saying Venti instead of Tall, I can feel so much better about myself, about my virtue, about my guaranteed mansion in the afterlife.
And what does the beggar get in return for his service? Not nearly enough. He puts in his eight or ten hours a day, delivering salvation of sorts, while the fussbudgets at Streets and Sanitation are busily tearing up his space under the expressway and putting up a fence to keep him from sleeping there tonight. He never knows if he’ll make any money on any given day, but he does know he’ll have a hard time finding a place to go, when he needs to go, and there are no free donuts at the end of his shift.
He’d have it a lot easier if he could get a “real job,” but that’s a huge lift for a guy with no clean clothes, no place to take a shower and, even worse, a deteriorating ability to communicate. When you’re standing on the street all day and you have no real conversations, your voice can drop to a whisper and your vocabulary atrophies. In spite of those challenges, I see this guy every time I walk past his office, because he’s working very hard at his full-time job.
On LaSalle Street the other day, I handed a beggar three bucks and he gave me both moral absolution and a blog post. I should have given him a five.
Next time you see a beggar on the street, make one of the best purchases you can make in a day. Before that, though, be sure to click here to subscribe.
Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.