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What It's Like to Panhandle

It's a mortifying last resort that earns you the public's scorn.

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First in an occasional series about life at the bottom of the 99 percent.

If there are secrets to successful begging, ways to stir people's souls, Brenda Johnson swears she doesn't know them.

You might think the sight of her--a woman in her 50s, sitting on a busted rollie bag, hunched from the pack on her back, inches from cars rolling off a freeway--would do the trick.

But no. Perched on a spit of grass at a bustling intersection in south San Jose, Johnson, as she wants to be called, in a threadbare brown kerchief, layers of sweaters and long black skirt, like an extra from Ken Burns’ Dustbowl series, had no luck at all for an hour and a half the other day. No one so much as tossed her a quarter. No one even smiled.

“It’s funny like that,” she said as cars whizzed by. Drivers who had to stop for a red light avoided eye contact. Johnson’s cardboard sign, "Please Help,” under her chest on her lap, made her point, but only one driver, a woman in a Ford Focus, came close. She looked through her purse, frowned, waved empty hands behind her windshield and mouthed: “Sorry.”

“I’ll try again later,” Johnson said, packing it in to head to a nearby encampment where she had been staying. “You never know.”

It's true. Spending time with people panhandling in San Jose and San Francisco, two cities where people asking for change on the streets and those who have it to spare literally bump shoulders, the only sure bet is that panhandling is unpredictable every which way.

The same person at the same spot, time and day of the week might "make" $50 in one hour, thanks to two generous $20 donations and a bunch of ones. Or they might have $5 after three hours. A grandmother, like 52-year-old Johnson, might get looks of sympathy and drivers rolling down their windows before she has time to reach them. Or, someone might roll down their windows to shame her, tell her to get a job, show some dignity.

There are panhandlers who need a fix and others who need a job or a hand. But all seem to get their share of scorn. Half a dozen people interviewed all had stories to tell about ways they endured the public’s wrath. Once, a young woman with others in the car asked Johnson to open her hand. When Johnson did, the woman spat in it and roared off, laughing.

Pranks happen routinely. Once, Johnson said, she was mooned. And she'd come to expect at least one middle finger a day.

"It's not half as fun as it sounds," she said with a droll smile. "I get a lot of cards about A.A." She smiled again. She doesn’t drink or do drugs anymore, she said. "A couple of times, I got a list of shelters."

Contrary to popular belief, panhandlers say they would rather work or do odd jobs than endure public scorn by begging. A barrel-chested young man in a wheelchair who said to call him "Bo," said that he was turned down for disability since he could work sit-down jobs like office temping, which he was in fact doing.

"But that doesn't feed a family of six," he said. "That's right. Four kids. That's why I'm out here."

His being in a wheelchair didn't seem to soften the hard-charging drivers racing past him on an industrial street off Highway 101 in San Francisco. After an hour amid heavy, choking traffic, he had made $10, including one five dollar bill from someone who had meant to give him a single but could only find the five.

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