For some, panhandling has become a way of life, paying better than hard to find steady employment. With the competition, and public wariness, many panhandlers have become more creative, and have worked out sympathetic, but realistic-sounding hard luck stories. I encountered one of them in a gas station in New Orleans while I was filling up. He approached me, introduced himself and welcomed me to New Orleans. (A nice touch, intended to generate empathy) Then he said he worked installing tiles and had just finished a nearby job.Unfortunately, he would not be paid until next week and needed a few bucks for gas so he could get home. This tale of being stranded would have been more convincing if he hadn’t been holding a cell phone at the time. No sale.
A few days later, however, a more unsettling scam was being practiced elsewhere. As we were getting out of the car on a shopping center parking lot near Nashville, a woman approached us with a young girl in tow. The woman appeared to be in her 40s and the girl was maybe 10 or so. This woman’s story was that she needed nine dollars to have enough for a hotel room for herself and her daughter. There were a few obvious problems with this tale; there was no hotel within miles, the couple had no possessions with them, and no means of transportation. How did they get there? How would they get to the supposed hotel? Plus, the woman seemed too old to have a child that age. And why was the girl wearing a bright colored dress instead of something more practical for living on the street? Well, that one was easy; to make her look more innocent and helpless, and less like a grifter-in-training.
We didn’t give them anything and they disappeared back among the parked cars as we shook our heads at the callousness of people dragging children into their con games. If we had any doubt the whole thing was a shameless, child-exploiting scam, they were dispelled a short time later when we returned to the car and saw the same pair walking toward the outer edge of the parking lot. There, under a shade tree was a late model red SUV with a waiting driver. The woman with the child looked at the driver and shrugged, as if to say “Slim pickings, today.” The woman and the child turned off to a place out of sight, and the SUV followed a minute later.
As we left the shopping center, we found ourselves directly behind the red SUV, and were not surprised to find that the woman and the child were now passengers. The car pulled on to the highway, went about two blocks, then pulled in to the next shopping center, no doubt hoping for more gullible shoppers at this new location. The child, who should have been in school, was no doubt learning a trade instead. Maybe one day, she will have a phony child of her own to exploit.