On Panhandling and Kairos

I’m happy to report that my documentary film project called Downtown is on schedule for completion in December. I’m finishing up cataloging the interviews this week ahead of writing the script. Two themes have emerged from the interviews: diversity and density. These themes have been consistent with our sources from the local level to the national level.

While nearly every source has mentioned diversity, each has understood it differently based upon their various points of view and hierarchy of concerns. But nearly universal among the interviews is the idea that diversity in a downtown is crucial because, when people encounter each other, good things can happen. “Things” can be so many things, but one of those things that is most important is the idea of the “other” becoming less mysterious and threatening. This gets at the heart of creating an urban community as opposed to the homogeneity that all too often accompanies sprawl.

Local sources have all mentioned various types of “threatening” people in downtown Springfield, including troubled teenagers hanging out on the Square and aggressive panhandlers.

I had an interesting encounter with two panhandlers in downtown Springfield this morning.

I have no set script for dealing with panhandlers. Since I rarely carry cash, that eliminates the uneasiness I feel about giving money. I don’t want to be funding addictions and such. I simply truthfully state “I’m sorry. I’m not carrying cash.”

But I have helped people who have asked for it when I detect (by some emotional reaction I have not reflected upon) that they have another need I can fill. For example, I gave a man and woman a blanket this past winter after asking them “Is there another way I can help you?” I asked because they appeared to me to be in real distress.

There was a woman sitting outside the Mudhouse this morning who looked in bad shape. She asked for money. I told her I had no cash, and she began asking for a meal for herself and her husband. I was a nanosecond away from saying “yes” when the husband stepped up.

He comes up from behind and finishes her request standing in my space bubble. His attitude was insistent. He also did not look in as bad a shape as she. Hmmmmmm… So I instead offered to point them to a source of help. And that’s when he said an interesting thing:

“There’s riffraff there. I don’t want to hang out with riffraff. I want to hang out with you.”

By “you” he did not mean me; he meant people like me.

But his bad kairos put me off — the concept of timing and proportion in rhetoric. His bad kairos included what I perceived as a stark difference in their conditions.

I pointed them to help and walked away. And now I’m at work cataloging the interviews and thinking about diversity.

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