It was the perfect panhandle.

The man standing outside the grocery store, shivering in the cold, was neither too clean nor too grungy. He was polite but not gushing and his story walked that fine line between outlandish and plausible.

“Hey, buddy,” he said, darting to and fro like an aquarium fish. “Can you help us out? My wife and I are out of gas and we just need enough for a gallon to get home.”

He cocked a thumb toward the dark part of the lot where the figure of a woman, a mere shadow in the gloom of winter night, slumped in the passenger seat.

He wasn’t menacing but he wasn’t skittish, either. He was tense but not quite desperate. Not too hard and not too soft, the perfect Goldilocks scenario in the freezing parking lot.

You want to be that guy who can breeze by a panhandler without pause. You could say, “Ain’t got nothing for you, Bub,” or you could say nothing at all. After all, most of us know that the majority of people who beg for your loose change are addicts and con men looking for a fast way to keep the party going. Or at least we THINK we know that. We’ve all heard the stories about men like this one who rake in a hundred grand a year just by sweet-talking handfuls of lint-covered change from the pockets of suckers.

We don’t want to be those suckers. We want to be wise and cool and street-smart.

For me, this is always a dilemma. I could brush this guy off without a word and retreat to my warm car, loose change secure in my pocket and destined for the piggy bank. I could head for home and throw steaks on the grill and fries in the oven. When it comes to panhandlers, doing nothing is easier than doing something.

But for me, indifference always comes crashing into a wall of uncertainty. It usually happens the very second I’m back in the car and headed for home. Golly, I’ll think. What if he really WAS out of gas? What if the poor dude has no way to get his beloved home and they have to spend this bitter-cold night shivering under a greasy blanket from the trunk?

Truth? Probably not. The guy in the parking lot looked familiar, for one thing, which means I’ve probably seen his mug shot a dozen times over the years. Chances are good he’s a crack addict between state checks and merely looking for a way to keep his pipe filled. He’s probably the kind of guy who would steal an old woman’s pocketbook without compunction. Probably.

But I don’t know for sure. For every five con men in the parking lots, there’s one dude who really is cold and hungry and desperate to feed his family. How do you distinguish one from the other? How do you make that snap judgment in the cold seconds between market and car?

Sighing, knowing I was being conned, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a rumpled bill. I handed it over with a mumbled, “Good luck,” and went on my way knowing that, although I had been swindled, at least my conscience was clear.

Although, if I even partially believed the sob story, shouldn’t I have given more?

So as I was pulling out of the parking lot, I watched the man as he approached other shoppers on their way in or out of the store. A young man in a spiffy leather coat surrendered his pocket change without a word. An older gentleman listened to the panhandler’s spiel for five seconds before shaking his head and moving on. A soccer mom pulled her daughter closer and hustled right past.

By my count, the panhandler was two-for-four in the span of just three minutes. At that rate, he could have either a couple gallons of gas or a single painkiller within 15 minutes of working the cold parking lot. That’s pretty good.

Or pretty bad. As with all things, it depends on how you look at it.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. Fellow suckers can email him at [email protected]

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