Panhandling in Paradise

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I tried a new job here in Aspen.  I was a panhandler.

I made a cardboard sign saying “SURVIVED CANCER BUT LOST MY JOB,” which happens to be true (albeit a little misleading) and put on an old pair of jeans and a work shirt.

Then I moseyed over to the police station.  The police had no money for me, but did have advice.  They advised me that panhandling in Aspen violates a city ordinance, and warned in that uber-polite Aspen police fashion that if anyone complains an officer will ask me to move on.

Sensing an opportunity for martyrdom, or at least victimhood, I asked, “Will you cuff me and throw me in jail?”  That drew a smile. But still no money.

I started my new beat right in front of that icon of downtown Aspen, the Hotel Jerome.  I figured that if I could provoke anyone into martyring me, it would be them.  Sure enough, after a few minutes one of those bellhops in a cowboy costume came up to me.

“Excuse me, sir.”

“Ah ha, this is where they rough me up,” I silently hoped.

But no.  Instead, he rolled alongside me a wheeled wardrobe loaded with luggage, and walked away.  I thought about grabbing an Armani bag from the wardrobe in order to ensure my martyrdom, but decided that stealing would be cheating.

Later, another person appeared.  This one wore a suit.

“Excuse me, sir, this is the unloading area for the hotel.  Would it be possible for you to move just a few feet so that we can handle the luggage here?”

He asked so nicely, I had to comply.

After an hour, I’d received a bounty of politeness, but nothing that City Market would take in exchange for food.  I concluded that people on that corner have no money to spare after they’ve spent a grand for a room and dinner at the Jerome.

So I walked over to the gondola.  I figured that people buying tickets for a summer ride might have a few bucks to help a cancer survivor.  I was wrong.

On the way back, I walked past the Wells Fargo Bank with its ATM machine.  One might think that with all that money flying about, some would wind up in my hands.  Wrong again.

A friend moseyed by.  His head did a 180 as he gaped at me, and he accidentally walked into a lamppost.  When I looked his direction, he pretended not to see me.  Then he scurried away.

And so it went.  I groused that rich residents of the town that uses taxpayer money to subsidize million dollar houses for insiders making up to $186,000 a year had donated to a tattered, bald, cancer-surviving panhandler a total of $0.00.

Zero.  Zip.  Nada.  And no martyrdom either.  The most I could claim was to be a victim of benign neglect.

What would it take to get help?  If I were bleeding, would they help?  If I clutched my chest and fell to the ground, would they help?  If I wore stripes with plaids, would they help?

I gave up.

Then outside of Carl’s Pharmacy, a man handed me a bill.  As I walked away, I saw it was a $100 bill.  I turned around and handed it back to him.

“Sir, I can’t take this much.”

“No, keep it.  I’m just sorry that you’re in this predicament.”

“Ah, geez.  Thank you for your generosity.”

“You’re welcome. God bless you.”

Stunned, I walked the few blocks to St. Mary’s and asked, “Could I talk with the priest?”

Part of me wanted to give confession.  But not being Catholic, I settled for just giving them the $100 bill with directions to use it for their homeless program.  As I left, I heard from them those words again, “God bless you.”

I don’t know if giving money to panhandlers makes their problems better or worse – more on that in another column.  But today, I’m just a reporter.

Today’s report is that, on a net basis, I wound up with no money.  But I did come away with sound advice from the police, polite requests from a hotel trying to run a business, a startling act of generosity from a stranger and two divine blessings from people I’d never met.

Aspen has its problems.  Even Aspen is not actually Paradise.  But there just might be angels among us.

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