Facing Poverty on the Off-Ramp

A panhandler at the intersection of Richmond and Chimney Rock in Houston.
Alex Proimos/flickr/CreativeCommons
A panhandler at the intersection of Richmond and Chimney Rock in Houston.

When Houston commuters think of I-45, many thoughts and emotions come to mind. Among those that can be referenced in a family-friendly publication are the feelings of rage and resignation when we are buried in traffic jams; the sensations of stupor or sublimity as we blur past strip malls and strip clubs; and the mindless humming inspired by old songs and the mindful attention inspired by a new one.

But rarely is I-45 a stage for moral quandaries—at least until you exit, stop at the first intersection, and confront an ethical impasse at the underpass. There, at the red light, you face a panhandler.

There is no better verb than “face,” if only because that is also the noun that captures what’s at stake. Many of us do our very best to evade these face-offs. There are drivers who, coming to a stop next to the panhandler, will nudge their cars forward. Others will try to edge their way into the far lane. Yet other drivers will run the light, running the risk of an accident in order—or so I suspect—to avoid spending the several seconds in the uncomfortable company of the needy.

When those strategies fail, there are yet others. Some of us stare furiously at our smart phones, while others take a newfound interest in odometer readings. Many of us will gaze straight ahead, pretending to be lost in thought, all the while a prisoner of just one: Why is this light taking so long to turn?

Some of us will look at the panhandler, but in the way we might look at faces in a police line-up or X-rays of our children’s teeth. We try to assess the situation, comparing the pleas on their signs with the clothing on their bodies or the expressions on their faces. Are those Ray-Bans he’s wearing? If he’s really homeless, why is he so clean-shaven? Or, Since he is homeless, shouldn’t he make himself more presentable? If she’s feeding three kids, why is she overweight? No wonder he’s begging; he clearly spent all his money on tattoos.

How do I know all these tactics, ruses and excuses? It’s simple: I’ve tried them all. While I send out yearly checks to a dozen charities, I cannot without effort fork over to a beggar the same couple of bucks that I thoughtlessly spend on an espresso. Why?

For the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Lévinas, our moral understanding is founded on “the face to face.” Truly seeing another person’s face is “the most basic mode of responsibility.” In the beginning, for Levinas, was not the Word, but the wordless encounter between two humans dependent upon one another not just for survival, but for recognition.

But perhaps recognition asks too much of us. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s characters declares that while we might love our neighbor abstractly, we rarely do so up close. This is the reason, he concludes, that beggars “should never show themselves in the street.”

This is especially the case on the feeder roads of I-45. Unlike downtown’s sidewalks and parks, the concrete banks and macadam tributaries of I-45 are the last place one expects to face a face. Encountering a human who isn’t enveloped in a shell of steel and glass shell in these parts is always a bit of a shock.

And yet there she is, a human being, her head abuzz with the torrent of traffic as she slowly works the line of cars. Let’s face it: She wants to be seen. Will I allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come between us? Will she spend my buck on drugs or booze, or drive off in Mercedes once her  shift is over?

But where is my common sense? Must we be sociologists to know that most panhandlers spend their money on food? Do I need to be an economist to know that giving cash to the poor is the most efficient way to help them? Do I have to consult a psychologist to grasp how difficult it is to ask strangers for help in the shadow of an underpass?

The next time we face another at an intersection, we should take the opportunity to face ourselves as well.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College, University of Houston. Most recently, he is the author of Boswell's Enlightenment from the Harvard University Press.

Published at 8:15 am CST