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Mares: Face to Face

12/15/11 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(Host) It's the Giving Season, and commentator Bill Mares has been thinking about the difference between dropping coins in a swinging bucket at the grocery store or sending a check to a distant, anonymous cause - and responding to a request for help face-to-face.

(Mares) On a recent Wednesday afternoon I was on my way to choral practice in downtown Burlington by way of a coffee shop. The panhandlers along this particular street had gathered – as they always seem to do these days - in fair weather and foul. It could just as easily have been Brattleboro or Bennington or Montpelier. Some stood or sat silently. Some held cardboard signs that read “Handicapped and homeless,” and “Lost everything!” One of them locked eyes with me and spoke: “Any spare change, sir?” In his ravaged face was a mixture of hope, resignation and calculation. He and the others were not starving children in distant lands. These were the wretched of my neighborhood, begging for help.

Conflicting inner voices piped up. One said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But another retorted, “I’ve already given at church, or to the United Way, or to someone else in need .”

I felt in my pocket. No change. Well, I could pass to the other side. I could stride through this minefield of misery with a thousand-yard stare. I looked around to see if anyone was watching me.

The English lawyer-writer John Mortimer once suggested in an essay that maybe we are all beggars. Most of us have our favorite causes or charities for which we plead.

He wrote: “We don’t beg only for money. We beg for love, doing our best to look needy and anxious to please. The world of advertising is devoted to begging people to spend money on things they may not really need. Politicians, those who seek to imprison far more honest and straight-forward beggars, beg shamelessly for votes in exchange for promises they are never going to keep."

In the coffee shop, I began thinking of that Depression-era song, “Brother can you spare a dime?” It’s still compelling and surprisingly relevant to today’s economic distress and war-weariness. It goes:

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Then the familiar chorus takes over about building railroads, and boots marching to hell, and ends with the unforgettable lines:

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

With my comfort zone now in tatters, I realized that I couldn’t simply ignore these people - marooned as they were on an island of want in the middle of this season of merriment and giving. So on the return trip I gave the man who had spoken to me $1.50, the price of my cup of coffee.
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