Tony Norman: Sidewalk scammer needs to rethink role

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A tap on the shoulder on a Downtown street took me out of my reverie.

I'd just finished listening on my iPhone to the Handsome Family's "Far From Any Road," the theme song to HBO's "True Detective," when a young man in his 20s interrupted my walk to work.

"Yo," he said, as I removed an ear bud to get a fix on him. "You remember me?"

The stranger's blotchy face was somewhat ashen. In the time it took me to register that I definitely didn't know the guy, he rushed to fill the awkwardness with a name.

"I'm Lonnie's brother," he said, extending his hand, which I shook more out of politeness than recognition.

Now, I happen to know a few Lonnies from my youth in Philly, but I could barely remember their faces, much less whether they had siblings I would've met -- ones who would have been born decades before the young man who stood before me.

There's a renowned photographer with that name who used to live in Pittsburgh, so I swung for the bleachers. "Lonnie G.," I said, grateful that my usual inability to remember first or last names hadn't crippled me first thing in the morning.

"Yeah," the young man said, flashing two rows of uneven teeth. "That's my brother."

"Oh, yeah? How's he doing?" I asked, before sensing that the chances of the young man and Lonnie being related actually were zero.

"I don't even know," the man said quickly, adding that the last time he'd seen "Lonnie" was Downtown a few weeks ago. He was hazy on the circumstances and tried to steer the conversation to his current circumstances.

"See, I'm in this program," he said, apparently alluding to a rehab facility. "I'm trying to put a few dollars together to get home."

These days I carry very little cash, so I was being honest when I told him I had nothing to give him. "We live in a cashless society," I said, immediately regretting the censorious tone in my voice. I didn't mean to lecture him.

"OK, but do you have an extra bus ticket or something?" he said, even as I shook my head in anticipation of that question. At least he hadn't offered to walk me to the nearest ATM for a withdrawal of petty cash like one aggressive panhandler previously tried.

"What's your name?" I asked, realizing I'd neglected the most basic of niceties. His expression suggested that I'd stopped him and asked him for money. "Joe" he said, though he looked more like a Lamar or a DeShawn to me. Then he turned abruptly and crossed the intersection at Fifth and Wood. Within seconds he had found another potential mark.

There was an awkward moment between Joe and the pedestrian before they embraced. They crossed the street together, with Joe no doubt reminding his "old friend" where they'd met.

I wondered if Joe would change the name of his brother from Lonnie to something more common today. Maybe he adjusts the name to fit the generational likelihood of a match. I'm old enough to know several Lonnies, but too old to be on a first-name basis with someone named Marquis, Damion or Knowshon.

What was clear was that it was unlikely that anyone he bothered to approach would be taken in by such a crude ruse in the first place, so what is the point? Maybe on a good day, Joe can pry a buck or two out of someone because they feel sorry for him and don't care if he uses it to buy drugs or liquor, but he doesn't exactly have a smooth touch.

Over the decades, I've given hundreds of dollars to panhandlers and people I perceived as genuinely homeless. Usually, they're holding a sign announcing the particular calamity that has befallen them. Most of the time, I believe them.

According to these hand-lettered signs, they're traumatized combat veterans of our recent wars, stranded hitchhikers or simply hard-luck souls whose failed marriages, broken relationships and job losses have sent them reeling.

Every year as the temperature rises and the coats that hampered easy access to wallets during the winter months are shed, many of us face the perennial dilemma about whether to give money to panhandlers. Is it ethical to give money to troubled souls who might do something with it that perpetuates their miserable status quo?

I don't really know Joe's story, but I made a lot of assumptions about him based on an encounter that lasted two minutes tops. Because he lied to me from the start, I distrusted him. But would I have really helped him out with a few bucks if he'd told the truth?


Correction, posted March 11, 2014: The title of the theme song to HBO's "True Detective" has been corrected.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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