Sunday, December 4, 2011

Panhandling and handshakes

Dan Ariely’s account of experiments in panhandling reminded me of the following passage in Infinite Jest (from one of my favorite sections in the novel). Barry Loach’s spiritually despondent brother is in danger of leaving the seminary. That would leave Barry to fulfill his mother’s wish that one of her children enter religious life. But Barry’s dream is to be an athletic trainer. What can he do to restore his brother’s faith in humanity?

After a few suggestions and rejections of bets too way-out even for Barry Loach’s desperation, the brothers finally settle on a, like, experimental challenge. The spiritually despondent brother basically challenges Barry Loach to not shower or change clothes for a while and make himself look homeless and disreputable and louse-ridden and clearly in need of basic human charity, and to stand out in front of the Park Street T-station on the edge of the Boston Common, right alongside the rest of the downtown community’s lumpen dregs, who all usually stood there outside the T-station stemming change, and for Barry Loach to hold out his unclean hand and instead of stemming change simply ask passersby to touch him. Just to touch him. Viz. extend some basic human warmth and contact. And this Barry does. And does. Days go by.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
Ariely found that passers-by were surprisingly willing to shake a panhandler’s hand. In Wallace’s novel, Loach makes plenty of money, but it’s only saintly Mario Incandenza — with no one “to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored and granted” — who’s willing to shake Barry Loach’s outstretched, fuliginous hand.

Reader, has a panhandler ever offered to shake your hand? What did you do? I’d answer too, but it’s never happened to me. I can’t imagine that the handshake-offer is a technique in wide use.

Related reading
All David Foster Wallace posts

[Fuliginous: sooty. A Wallace word.]

comments: 1

Anonymous said...

In answer to your question, I have had panhandlers in NYC and San Francisco offer their hands, and each time I have refused. But more, I have also been offered the hand of a number of politicians in public appearances and similarly refused. I do not take the hand of someone I do not know, nor wish to meet. Since politicians and panhandlers are merely two extremes of the same scale, I view my curmudgeonly behavior as consistent, intended to break the "custom" and rabidly independent. The game is often tried along the upper West Side and on 57th Street in particular. Or was, I testify. I haven't been in either town in twenty years now.