On my way there, I observed any number of men panhandling. What amazed me was how openly they were doing it. Even on some of the main thoroughfares they stopped pretty near every man who looked a little bit prosperous without any interference from the authorities. Some were standing in the middle of the sidewalk, some were walking against the traffic holding their hands out, and if the handouts didn’t come fast enough to suit them they started to curse and berate the pedestrians. I watched some of them with a certain degree of awe [for] the technique they used in their approach to an intended victim.
It was these men that might have been called professional panhandlers, for I noticed pretty near every one of them made some kind of contact. At least they seemed to get more handouts than those who were of the beggarly type of panhandler, and, too, they were far better dressed and more intelligent looking.
To get a better idea of the many ways there are at your command to eke out an existence while knocking about, one must really live as they do.
Some of these men do make a fair day’s pay and, naturally, they live very comfortably on the proceeds. It is to them that the ordinary tramp and bum takes his hat off. Real hobos detest all three. One cannot help but admire them in a way, if you take into consideration the many types of men they must stop and ask for a handout and the many refusals, as well as the added risk of perhaps being put in jail for thirty or sixty, and at times, ninety days.
Such audacity and persistence and perseverance, if put to better use, no doubt would net them as good a living as every man would want.
To my way of thinking, some businessmen would do well to look for some first-class salesmen among them. They never let up until they have made enough to tide them over. You never see them down in the slums, and never have I seen them in a breadline or a mission.
These men really lived by their wits.From Waiting for the Train, by John MacDonald. Edited for grammar and clarity by Warner House Press.
This passage, from Chapter Five of Waiting for the Train, highlights some of the variety in how different people adapted to the circumstances of the Great Depression. While many of the transients John MacDonald encounters are down, angry, and frustrated with their lot, these professional panhandlers in Philadelphia instead seize an opportunity. By unabashedly approaching anyone and everyone for a handout, they are able to enjoy a more comfortable existence than many others affected by the bleak era.
John himself remarks that their skills could have been put to use elsewhere, perhaps in business or sales. As described here, these panhandlers are a prime example of the resilience and tenacity exhibited by a great many of the varied individuals he encounters on his journeys.
For more stories like this, look out for further excerpts and the full release of Waiting for the Train, coming soon from Warner House Press.