An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

As I approached my car parked along a street in a less affluent part of Salt Lake City, a thin, gray-haired man spoke to me from the sidewalk. His voice was soft and hoarse, so I walked through the snow to the sidewalk to hear him although I was pretty sure he was asking for money. He said he’d just arrived from Texas and had caught a cold and wondered if I could spare a dollar or two for him to buy some cough drops.

I have a strong prejudice against facilitating negative behavior—and I define begging as negative behavior—so I generally refer panhandlers to the homeless shelter or Salvation Army—and donate to support these organizations. Habit kicked in and I referred the man to the shelter instead of giving him cash. He looked so pathetic and disappointed that my conscience burned. As I drove away, I realized I could have offered to buy the man some cough drops or food in the nearby mini-mart. Or I could have just handed him a couple of bucks. How could I be so unfeeling to a fellow creature on a cold day a week before Christmas?

I confessed my lack of compassion to George when I returned home. He tried to salve my conscience by telling me the man might have gotten angry and violent if I’d offered to buy him food instead of giving him cash. Nice try, George. I was bigger and stronger than that poor, old man.

An hour later, George and I were approached by a woman in a supermarket parking lot. She said her car had broken down and she needed $2 or $3 to take the bus to Salt Lake. “Bus fare is $1.00 for senior citizens,” I told her. George knew I needed to repent for refusing the sad, old man in Salt Lake, and handed her four quarters. As the woman walked away, a store employee picking up shopping carts asked if we’d been solicited for money and told us he’d seen her doing that yesterday. Maybe if I’d followed my conscience the first time, I could have held my ground against the scam artist.

My friend, Tanzy, insists all panhandlers are scam artists being supported in luxury by the gullible. She knows this because she heard a man on talk-radio relate his career as a street beggar in Salt Lake during the ‘70s. He claimed to have made $70,000 year by driving his Cadillac downtown, parking it in a mall garage, then hitting the streets pretending to be a college student needing bus fare to get to his classes at the University.

My brother who does math in his head heard Tanzy and said since buses don’t run on Sundays and holidays, the man couldn’t have played his scam more than 200 days a year—necessitating a take of $350 a day to achieve a $70,000 annual income. With bus fare about 25 cents in the ‘70s, approximately 1400 people a day would have to ante up a quarter—or about 140 people per hour, if he worked ten hours a day. We found it implausible that anyone could consistently talk 20 people a minute out of a quarter in Salt Lake City in the ‘70s.

Believing her talk-show source frees Tanzy from guilt over refusing to fork over cash to beggars. My daughter, Lolly, gives to every beggar although knowing that many times her money will go for booze or drugs. Straddling the fence on this issue gives me a pain in the heart as well as the butt. I think I need to go with Lolly’s approach. I doubt anyone who isn’t desperate would beg—whether they need the money for food or for pain relief. And who am I to judge people who probably lacked the advantages I’ve enjoyed—loving parents, a secure home, and an education?

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