Tuesday, December 9, 2014


We have panhandlers on Carrolton Avenue in New Orleans.  It is the source of contention for a lot of us, and it makes us mad, because it is the same group, panhandling every day.  I have written before about homelessness and panhandling and about how I am conflicted by it.

But I think I may have happened upon a solution.

I was driving down Carrolton yesterday, and saw something that made me reach wildly, and mostly unsuccessfully, for my camera.  The picture I took was a blurry shot taken out the back window, and it is not even anything that is terribly out of the ordinary here in New Orleans. It was a guy with a tuba (OK, it was a Sousaphone), and he wasn't playing it, just walking down the street.

Sonny, a friend of mine, lived in a neighborhood with a sousaphone player who would play his tuba for hours on end in the neighborhood, just Bomp, bomp, babomp; Bomp, bomp, babomp.... for hours.

It was only after a few months that Sonny realized that he was witnessing the world's happiest drug dealer, announcing to his clients that the market was OPEN. Whenever a policeman would drive by, the stash would go in the bell of the tuba, to be shaken out when the risk had passed.

In New Orleans, we LOVE that kind of story.  We love it when our extended family weave illicit activities into the fabric of our society, and we use music, dance and parades to make that happen.

Three blocks down Carrolton, still grinning at the idea of the itenerant tuba player, I encountered the first of the panhandlers along the gauntlet, and it hit me.

We hate these panhandlers because they are separated from our culture, and are taking money from us in the process.  They make it less likely that our citizens - those from our city - can benefit from the generosity that we feel as a part of our cultural DNA. 

But that anger would change completely, if the panhandler were to hold a guitar.  Or a tuba.  Or a fiddle.  Or maybe even a banjo.  The moment that happens, the panhandler changes in front of our eyes.  He is no longer a drain on our society.  He no longer makes us angry.  He is a busker, rather than a beggar.  A street performer, rather than a panhandler. And we love our street performers (despite recent City Council decisions as evidence to the contrary) - we hire them to do parades, we hire them for events, we will always toss money.  And that profession has a long and storied history in town.

There are support groups, and supporters for street performers.  We love them because so much of our cultural history is steeped in a musical gumbo, bringing musicians of all sorts into the city to jam, to play, to suck the marrow out of life.

Begging, not so much... 

As I drove further down Carrolton yesterday, I saw the panhandlers in a different light.  Maybe not seeing them differently enough to give them money.... but to see the possibility.  Even a bad guitar player can learn three chords and play a little to entertain me at a stoplight. And in the process become a street performer.  Asking me for tips, instead of a handout. 

For that, I would put a dollar in his jar.

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