A look of recognition Inside the life of a Harvard Square panhandler
Every time I go to Harvard Square, I pretend John Johnson doesn’t exist. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to talk to him. But he always talks to me when I enter the CVS Pharmacy.
John asks for change in front of the store, greeting everyone who approaches from both sides of Massachusetts Avenue. He holds a paper cup from Au Bon Pain. It holds a few coins.
“Spare change, lady! Spare change, big guy! Spare change, sister!” he repeats over and over, flashing a kind smile.
It’s difficult to avoid his big black eyes staring at me when I go to CVS. I pretend I am busy. As the cashier hands me my change, I wonder if John would make better use of it. I leave the store as if I’m in a hurry. Soon, I forget about him.
But John is always there, trying to be noticed. He is a massive 50-year-old African American man that has panhandled in Harvard Square nearly every day for 15 years.
He doesn’t look 50. But his beard is starting to grow out, showing some gray here and there.
I know these things because one recent afternoon, I stopped pretending and talked to him.
John told me he asks for change in front of the Harvard Square CVS in the afternoons. During the morning, he works in the stocking department of a Stop and Shop in Dorchester, the same neighborhood where he rents a room. When his shift ends, he takes the Red Line to Cambridge. At dusk, he heads home.
John was born and raised in Dorchester. Before graduating at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in 1984, he landed a job in a construction firm, where he carried building materials. After getting laid off 10 years ago, he looked for a job for several months until he found the part-time position at Stop and Shop.
To make extra money, he decided to try asking for change on the streets. John doesn’t remember how he chose the spot at Harvard Square — he thinks a friend might have told him the place was good for tips.
“There are a lot of students around,” he says, “and excellent tips.”
John swears he doesn’t need the money he earns panhandling, but he says it helps him pay the bills and buy his favorite breakfast — bacon and eggs with sausage.
“You get good company, too,” he adds.
Friends bring him dinner almost every day. Sometimes, like the day I talked to him, he might even get his favorite meal.
“French fries with a cheeseburger,” he says, mesmerized, tidying the paper bag as if it contained a prize. He keeps it on the sidewalk beside him, with a can of iced tea and other paper cups.
In half an hour, several passers stop to greet him and chitchat. Ann Alloso, a gray-haired lady in her 70s, interrupts our conversation to make sure I understand whom I’m talking to.
“I have lived for 50 years in Cambridge now and he is the most respectful man I have ever seen around here,” she says. “He gives me nothing but the big smile.”
Happy about having made her point to a journalist, she rushes into CVS. That’s a good example of the pros of stemming here, John says.
“I’m a people person,” he says, getting close as if he’s about to tell me a secret.
To him, panhandling has more pros than cons. When I ask him if he ever feels embarrassed doing it, he swears he doesn’t.
“Oh, it’s easy. All you got to do is ask. I have a mouth!” he says.
The cons? “The hassles and the comments people give. You know — ‘Get a job, you bum!’” John says, slightly disappointed.
Most people, however, are neither nice nor nasty toward him. They just do what I used to do: ignore him.
“Oh, they do that all the time,” he says without regret. He thinks people have become increasingly oblivious throughout the years.
Rick Wallwork, associate director of Boston Cares, a volunteering organization that serves mainly Eastern Massachusetts, agrees. He thinks urban growth might be contributing to people’s aloofness.
“Generations ago, communities were smaller and more self-contained, so that if you lived on a block, chances are that you knew all of your neighbors,” he explains. “If you had kids, and those kids were getting into trouble down the street, the neighbors … would control the situation. So everybody in the neighborhood was watching out for everybody else.”
As Wallwork sees it, things are different now.
“A lot of people are just so busy and so caught up in what’s going on in their own lives that they may not see what’s happening with others,” he says.
Massachusetts Avenue is crowded with busy passersby on this sunny afternoon, and John is trying to get some change between answering my questions. Aware that he has been missing some good tips during our conversation, he wants me to leave.
“Can we wrap it up?” John says, and then pauses.
“Oh, and, by the way, do you have some change?” he asks politely, leaning slightly forward like a child awaiting a Christmas present.
I search my pockets and find a dollar bill.
“Oh, I knew it was there!” he beams.
I feel happy too. But on my way to the car, I think about all the other John Johnsons out there, trying to make a living. In the United States, nearly 36.5 million people live like him, below the poverty line. Massachusetts is the home for about 700,000 of them, according to 2006 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Could I help these people? The taxes I pay don’t seem like enough to solve a social problem that can have so many different catalysts — drugs, abuse, illness, a lack of opportunity, and on and on.
“There are issues of policy and funding, but those are particularly challenging,” says Wallwork. “As far as individuals, what we can do is just helping people, being courteous on the street.”
Boston Cares tries to foster that recognition by getting people to volunteer, starting small by doing something as simple as serving a meal or painting a schoolroom on a Saturday morning. Before long, Wallwork says, they realize that they’ve become more emotionally involved than they ever thought possible in the lives they once overlooked.
“We want people to get out of their world and see firsthand how other people are living and the challenges they are facing,” Wallwork says.
John has never had any serious medical issues, feels safe having Medicaid as his insurance coverage, and says he is happy with his life. One of his challenges, though, is having a place he can call home. If he could have only one dream come true, it would be to have “a house in the Bahamas,” he says. Only a house, though, “would be great,” he adds.
Wallwork believes that any act of help could eventually inspire others around us, increasing the chances to change lives like John’s. It’s “Pay It Forward” philosophy.
“You say hello to three people and they hopefully will say hello to the next people they see,” says Wallwork. “It starts with just common courtesy and friendliness and then you take it to the next level, going to consciously help somebody, whether it’s serving a meal or participating on a walk to help others less fortunate.”
I am not sure if I am ready to do much. But next time I’m in Harvard Square, John will greet me by name.
I’ll greet him back.