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Webitorial: : The Old Man and Dancing Lisa

Paying back the panhandlers

By Larry Gross · November 5th, 2003 · Columns
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I met him a few months ago on the No. 17 bus downtown. He told me what his name was, but I don't remember it.

He looked dirty and homeless. I figured he was probably a panhandler, too. He didn't smell very good, but the bus was crowded and I was tired so I took the seat next to him.

He started talking to me, as I knew he would. He had alcohol on his breath, and his speech was slurred. His unkempt beard was totally white, as was his long hair. His face looked haggard, and his hands were shaking. He was an old man.

His rambling questions and statements were sometimes incoherent. He asked me if I liked John Wayne. I said no. He told me John Wayne was a hell of a man.

He said he had been in the Navy, a Vietnam War veteran. He said he was an artist, that he liked to paint but didn't do it much anymore. The old man admitted to me he was a panhandler and what little money he could get usually went toward alcohol. He told me he was a drunk.

He talked about Country music: Jimmy Rodgers, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. He even sang a little of "Hey Good Lookin' " for me. Sometimes when he talked, it looked like tears were in his eyes. But I'm not sure.

As we made our way through Over-the-Rhine, then up the hill toward Clifton, the crowded bus started to thin out a bit. I could have changed my seat, and on most days I would have. But not on that day. He needed someone to talk to, so I let him talk to me.

Before I got off the bus at Clifton and Ludlow, he wanted to know if I had any spare change.

I gave him a couple bucks and wished him well.

The encounter with the old man somehow made me think back to Dancing Lisa. I would often see her dancing on various corners downtown talking to herself. It was apparent she had a drug problem, but for whatever reason I always liked her smile and her spirit.

She was a Whoopie Goldberg lookalike, probably in her early 20s. She was hesitant to approach people for money but always did. I would give her what change I had.

One time she sheepishly walked up to me and wanted to know if I had an extra cigarette. I gave her two. I asked if she needed a light, and she said "Bud Light?" We both laughed, then she danced away.

The very next day I saw her on Fountain Square as I was rushing to make an appointment. She smiled at me and I went into my wallet to give her a couple dollars. Dancing Lisa said, "No, I approach you too much. I'll give it a rest for a while. Thanks anyway."

That was two summers ago, and I haven't seen her since.

I sometimes still think about her, but those thoughts are usually fleeting. Lisa, just like the old man, was a panhandler, so I try not to give them much thought. I try not to care. I live in a city where they're considered a nuisance, a pain in the ass, and frankly they are.

I get tired of walking downtown and being approached for money. Some panhandlers even have the gall to state how much they need -- and I'm not talking change here, but dollars. And if it's not money they want, it's cigarettes. If you're a smoker walking in downtown Cincinnati, it's best to keep that pack in your pocket and not light up.

Some panhandlers aren't even homeless. There's a man in a wheelchair in Clifton who presents himself that way. After his day of asking people for money is over, he rolls on home to his apartment in the Gaslight District. Good, unsuspecting people in Clifton are helping pay for his rent.

This guy and so many of the others give panhandlers a bad name. It's easy to put them all in the same category. I find myself wanting to say to these people, "Go out and get a job like the rest of us." So much of the time it's a total pleasure to say no to them.

But when I run into people like the old man and Dancing Lisa, I think to myself that there but for the grace of God go I. I have to admit that I do care.

I saw the old man in Clifton the other night. He was drunk and approached me for money. I gave him $5 bill, and he said, "God bless you." I'm sure he doesn't remember our bus ride together, but I'll never forget it. My heart goes out to him and also to Dancing Lisa. I wish I could see her again and know she's alright.

I have a daughter about the same age. I wonder if Lisa's parents love her as much as I love my child. I wonder what went wrong. ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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