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Public Spaces


“Panhandling”–what it is, who can do it and where–has been a hot topic in Iowa City recently ever since the city council proposed–and ultimately passed–a new ordinance prohibiting “aggressive panhandling” in response to some folks’ concerns over solicitation on the ped mall.

That there already were laws on the books prohibiting this–laws that had never resulted in a single arrest–was apparently of little concern to them. This new law was, in the words of council member Mike Wright “a solution that’s roaming around searching for a problem.”

When it comes to “solutions roaming around in search of a problem,” I can always tell it’s summertime in Iowa City by the humidity that makes me wish I lived someplace dryer, like Cambodia, as well as by the arrival of the Mormon missionaries who arrive every year about this time.

I see them strolling through the neighborhoods–and patrolling the ped mall–talking to passersby while trying, I suspect, to convert folks to Mormonism, but I don’t know for certain as they’ve never actually approached me personally.

Considering the amount of time I spend downtown in areas where folks might be especially susceptible to conversion, the fact that I’ve never once been approached by them makes me wonder if there isn’t a photo of me taped to a wall someplace in Salt Lake City with “Do Not Save This Man” written across it in bold red letters.

I’ve considered stopping some of them to ask if this was the case, but, on the off chance that it was, I’d just as soon not know about it. It’s good to feel wanted and if I found out that there was an entire religion that wanted nothing to do with me from the get-go it would probably hurt my feelings.

There was an early morning knock on my door a month or so ago and I crawled from bed to see an almost unnaturally beautiful woman standing there smiling at me.

I knew this wasn’t part of the dream I had been having because she was dressed far more modestly than the women in my dreams usually are–and also because she was clutching a handful of The Watchtower, the flagship publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I normally dispatch religious solicitors by pretending I’m not the actual resident of my apartment, but just a plumber there to fix a pipe that was, At That Very Moment, spewing raw sewage all over the bathroom and I had to rush back to it, but I never do any plumbing while wearing only my boxer shorts so my story might have seemed somewhat suspect. Besides, she was so compellingly beautiful that I was happy to listen to her for a few minutes just to stare into her eyes.

I listened for a bit (pre-coffee, I heard mostly just high tones and low tones) and when she asked me if “we could come in for a few minutes to visit?” I was so busy trying to picture what she might look like in more locally appropriate garb and wondering how I could convert her to my way of life that I said “yes” almost before I realized I had done so.

It was then that the “we” part of her question stopped the fantasy reel that was running through my head and I peered over her shoulder to see another woman standing just a few feet to her right who may have once been a professional wrestler–or at least someone who had given birth to several of them.

She, I suppose, was the “bad cop” to the first woman’s “good cop,” part of a routine they had no doubt perfected over time as it had worked quite well on me. The first woman–the actual knocker–would use her beauty to get a foot in the door, literally and spiritually, while the second one was there to make sure that nobody got to “know” anybody else too well once she did–in the biblical sense of the word anyway. A guardian angel in comfortable shoes.

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Once it dawned on me that our “visit” wouldn’t possibly transpire in the way I had imagined it might, I feigned obligation to “something I had on the stove,” bade them well, and retreated back into my apartment to lay some more groundwork for my inevitable eternal damnation.

A few weeks later I was sitting on my porch one afternoon when a group of young Baptist folks carrying Bibles walked by and stopped to ask if they could talk to me about my soul.

Always interested in talking about myself I said “sure,” and they gave me a compelling pitch about the coming End of Days and what I needed to do beforehand to guarantee that I wouldn’t be left behind, and how I would be if I didn’t cast my lot in with them.

They laughed when I asked them whether the Rapture would wipe out my credit card debt (but didn’t actually answer the question, leaving me to believe that it won’t, unfortunately) and invited me to come to a meeting with them to learn more about their church.

I asked how long their church had been around for and they told me that their particular branch of the Baptist church had been around for almost 60 years.

I told them then that my faith had been around for almost 6000 years and I didn’t have any real complaints about it (the films of Pauly Shore notwithstanding), so I wasn’t looking to change my afterlife service provider at this time, but I would keep their offer in mind if I ever had a change of heart.

Neither of these events–complete strangers, at the door of my home, soliciting souls–caused me any discomfort, fear or unease. Why some people get so upset by folks asking them for mere pocket change while they’re out in public is a divine mystery to me.

Even though it was unlikely I would have surrendered my soul to them (though had the Jehovah’s Witness gal not had a chaperone with her, you never know) I was still more than happy to listen to their pitches and was left none poorer for having done so.

I’m neither too busy nor too important to spend a few minutes of my day talking to strangers–even when I’m only wearing boxer shorts and haven’t had any coffee yet–and I wouldn’t begrudge anybody their right to knock on my door to try and sell me something, be it everlasting and eternal life or a set of cheap, Chinese-made steak knives.

This being the case, I don’t understand why the city council felt it necessary to pass a new ordinance aimed at cracking down on panhandlers and buskers on the ped mall.

I’d like to think–most days anyway–that the value of my immortal soul is just slightly greater than the 50 cents or a dollar that the panhandlers and musicians had been asking folks for.

If given a brush-off, a panhandler might tell me that I should go to hell and a proselytizer might tell me I’m going to go to hell, but that’s okay, ultimately, because for all I know both could be right and who am I to try and stop them from speaking their minds on the issue?

The panhandlers and buskers who were down on the ped mall day in and day out had established–in legal parlance anyway–“constructive possession” of the space and had earned just as much of a right to be there as anyone else, even if they hadn’t seen a razor in a while.

Given the voluminous–and vociferous–amount of opposition to this ordinance, its passage was truly a tone-deaf move aimed at turning our vibrant downtown into a place just as soulless as the food court of the mega-mall that drew all the businesses away from it in the first place.

This public space (formerly public, anyway) belongs everybody, not just the well-heeled boutique store shoppers allegedly “too afraid” to come downtown to buy expensive gifts for their loved ones and who are too classy to express their feelings simply by sliding a cash-filled envelope across the table. “Here, look, I got you some cash. Happy anniversary, baby!”
I may not want to surrender my soul–or the change rattling around in my pocket–to the folks who might be interested in either, but I also don’t want to live in a place where I don’t have the right to at least listen to offers for them, either.

That our city council doesn’t feel this way makes me wonder if, ultimately, they might be the ones most in need of a donation.

Not a monetary one, just a little bit of soul, to replace the soul they seem to be short on themselves. Fifty cents’ or a dollar’s worth is all I’m asking for.

If we all pitch in, it just might make a difference.

Anybody have a hat?


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