The medial strip on the Vineyard offramp at Punchbowl Street seems a favorite for men holding signs asking for money.
Call it panhandling. Sounds cold-hearted, but that’s what they are doing.
There’s nothing unusual about them. They have the standard junk piece of cardboard scribbled with pleas for cash. Some add a pledge that they’ll spend the money on food as opposed to booze, reflecting an awareness of a prevalent reason/excuse people choose not to hand over spare change.
Some give reasons for their circumstances (lost jobs, of course). Others add a bit of autobiography, such as "war veteran." One guy wrote that he’d been a fisherman but lost his boat.
These roadside encounters are momentary. You’re in a car, the engine’s going, the light will change eventually and you can leave them behind.
Pangs of conscience might linger.
A few weeks ago, I had a different experience. I was leaving a noodle shop clutching a flimsy bag that threatened to dump dinner on the pocked asphalt of the parking lot when a man who looked to be in his 20s called out.
"Aunty, aunty, you can help me out?"
The familiar way he addressed me was off-putting, but it hadn’t been the first time. Comes with having gray hair and an old white Toyota.
His pitiful tone neutralized my annoyance. His story brought it back.
Shielding himself from the rain with a section of the Star-Advertiser (see, there is a good use for the newspaper), he blurted a confusing story about his girlfriend getting mad at him because her father gave him a job but he stole the father’s tools and he was going to give them back but she drove off with his truck and she didn’t know the tools were in the truck bed and she would probably leave the truck on the street and someone else would steal them, which would mean he couldn’t make amends. He needed six dollars to get a gas can, he said.
After a long night’s work, I wasn’t in the mood for nonsense. Before I could turn him away, he went on about how he’d asked these other people hanging in the parking lot but they blew him off. Full of indignation, he balled up the wet paper and hurled it across the lot.
I walked away calmly, got in the car, locked the door again and turned on the ignition. I thought he’d yell or something, but his reaction was to retrieve the soggy newspaper and put the pieces in a rubbish can.
I don’t know why he did that. I don’t know why I cracked the window and handed him six dollars.
Last week, a scruffy-looking guy fidgeted on the Vineyard medial strip. Shirtless, jeans hanging low, he held a torn Zippy’s bag that threatened to dump its contents on the road.
He walked over, leaned toward the car and said, "Aunty, you get two dollars for the bus?"
I didn’t look at him. The light changed and I drove away. I don’t know why.
Cynthia Oi can be reached at email@example.com.