Gene Weingarten: Gene revolutionizes panhandling

Gene Weingarten
Columnist August 9, 2012

I’m sitting at my dining room table, counting out a tidy pile of cash generated under a bold new business model of my invention; I am feeling the way Henry Ford must have felt when he saw that first assembly line rumble into action.

I just made $71 in a little more than three hours of easy, skill-free work, which extrapolates to about $42,000 a year. Subtracting federal, state and municipal taxes — applied entirely on the honor system, because this is off-the-books earnings — we’re talking about a yearly take-home of roughly, lessee, carry the six ... $41,870 a year. Not bad for a panhandler!

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

Yes, I panhandled for three hours, but not in the commonly understood way. Panhandlers tend to have imperfect business plans: haphazard strategy, inadequate diction, off-putting personal atmospherics, etc. Mostly, though, what they lack is a product. The Weingarten Business Plan, coming soon to a bookstore near you, doesn’t expect the client to pay something for nothing.

“Hi, I’m panhandling,” I said to my first prospective customer, a pleasant-looking, middle-age guy hanging out near a Metro station. His name is Ed. “If I can make you laugh, will you give me a dollar?”

Ed smiled, reached for his wallet.


(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

“You already did, kind of. But go ahead.”

“Why do gorillas have big nostrils?”

“Why?”

“Because they have big fingers!”

Ed ponied up the buck. He didn’t love the joke, he said, but he appreciated the creativity of my approach and said I didn’t look like I was the kind of guy who would use the money for booze. I wasn’t crazy about that last reason: For my business model to take off, it has to work for anyone. I had to eliminate the variable of charm and see if it still worked.

I fell in stride beside my next target, a woman:

“I’m panhandling so I can drink fortified wine in a doorway and generally continue my idle lifestyle of sponging off others. But if I can make you laugh, will you give me a dollar?”

She kept walking. I didn’t. I called after her: “What’s Irish and stays out in the rain?”

She didn’t even deign to turn around. But she did stop to listen.

“Paddy O’Furniture.”

I got the buck!

About three-quarters of the people I approached wanted no part of this deal, so we never got to the jokes, but that was no problem: Because the turndowns were instantaneous, they hardly ate into my workday at all. The system is efficient. Plus, the presence of earbuds seemed to self-select and reliably screen out the people who didn’t want to be disturbed. Almost every time someone stuck it out for the joke, he or she paid.

“What did the fish say when he ran into a wall? Dam!”

Ka-ching.

What did the bra say to the hat? “I’ll give these two a lift; you go on a head.”

Ka-ching.

“What’s the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a lawyer on a motorcycle? With the vacuum cleaner, the dirt bag’s on the inside.”

I told that last one to a law student named Stephen, who found it funny, anyway. Instead of a buck, Stephen gave me his opinion of my method, which seemed appropriate, under the circumstances; we were professionals, exchanging services rendered. This approach works, Stephen said, because of the magic of contracts: Once people agree that they’ll pay you for a product, he said, they feel guilty if they don’t follow through.

Speaking of guilt, I should note that I partly stole this business model from a young man I watched in the street, trying to interest passersby in donating to Children International, an anti-poverty charity. He started them off with a joke. So the group gets my check for $71.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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