The night before Halloween in many parts of the country is Trick-or-Treat Night. This year the whole day before Halloween in Lakeland, Fla., seemed like it to me.
Lakeland is a small city of 100,000 people midway between Orlando and Tampa on the I-4 corridor across the Sunshine State. It is a rural city in the sense that its economic base is citrus production and phosphate mining plus product distribution to retail outlets throughout west-central Florida. It is virtually free of tourists and in late October the annual “snow birds” have not yet descended upon their winter quarters.
All day long the day before Halloween in Lakeland I got tapped for handouts from all directions.
At the bank, where I stopped to go inside and conduct some business, there was a man in the parking lot who needed a buck or two to catch a bus downtown.
At the gas station there was a man who needed a buck or “whatever” to put together the fare to ride Amtrak to Orlando for a job interview. At Wal-Mart there was a woman who just needed a couple of bucks to tide her over until her food stamps for her children came through. At the post office there was a man who needed a couple of bucks to make up the $10 he needed for a night in the shelter since he had already used up his allotment of nights in one of the other shelters in town. His pitch was that he needed a shower and some sleep so he could start a new job he had on Monday.
Were they tricking me or telling me the truth? I don’t know. Did I give them anything? Yes, a dollar here, a buck there and some change out of my pocket.
Because to a person they represented to me a deeper plague that seems to be infecting this country: we have turned a lot of people out on the street that should not be there. Many of them are mentally incapable of coping with life on life’s terms.
It was best illustrated when I got to my volunteer job as secretary of a local Masonic Lodge that day. Across the street from the lodge is an old church with a large parking lot and some big open lots around it. On the last Saturday of the month they have a flea market to which many people come. They have a band or a DJ there playing music, much of it good, old gospel and inspirational.
In the midst of one of the side fields I saw an irate woman waving a big walking stick while screaming at another woman whom she was threatening to kill, all the while cursing out a nearby man in language that would draw the envy of an old drill instructor. I think she was a decent example of the “truth” today. There was no “trick” about what she was up to. She was a deeply disturbed person, someone who needed psychiatric help in a big way.
To a person the people who had hit me up this day were a little over the edge. Some may have had drinking or drug problems. Others were simply “disturbed.”
I’ve seen my share of “panhandlers,” “weed sleepers” or whatever other euphemism one might choose to label them, but nothing like the volume of them that seems to have popped up in the last few years. I was a small boy living in a small Ohio town of less than a thousand people with my grandparents during the last years of the Great Depression.
I remember men coming to the back door of the house looking for odd jobs to do. My grandmother always had a little something they could do mainly to keep them occupied while she prepared them a meal. She served it to them on the back step on real plates complete with proper silverware and a cloth napkin. She topped it off with a cool glass of ice tea to which she had added a mint leaf.
They were most grateful and their visit always ended with a “Thank you, Ma’m!” Were they disturbed like I see people today?
Again, I don’t know, but they didn’t have to make up any story to get a little help. All they needed to do was show up and ask for some work.
That seems to be one of the big differences in our society over the last seven decades through which I have watched this phenomena develop.
WHERE IS THE WORK ETHIC?
Not a one of the people who tapped me the day before Halloween even suggested they might like to do some work to earn a few bucks. They simply wanted money for whatever it was occupying their mind that day.
But cogitating on the differences between the beggars of yesteryear and those of today I can’t make one overriding thought go away: I don’t think I’ve been tricked by anyone other than the very people I helped elect to public office – at all levels of government – over the years.
Therefore the “truth” is that I may have “tricked” myself into thinking that they would do and accomplish what they said they would do and accomplish. Instead of building programs for the good of all, we have ended up with too many bloated programs that benefit few and ignore the welfare of many. Instead of helping those who can’t help themselves we have given them some pills, and occasionally a dollar or two, and put them out on the street where they are guaranteed to fail at coping with life.
I met too many of them on Beggar’s Night this year.
Copyright © 2010 Dave Whitney
Dave Whitney is a retired journalist and adventurer who has won many writing awards. He was born and raised in central Ohio, attended school in Missouri, served in the US Army Security Agency, and migrated to Florida a half century ago. Author of four books, he is a former Associated Press writer/editor and has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize during his writing career. As editor and founder of the Free Press newspapers in the Florida Keys he was the first publisher to pick up Frank Kaiser's "Suddenly Senior" column when it entered syndication. Whitney currently resides in Lakeland, Fla., after living 25 years in the Florida Keys. Write him at email@example.com