Study of a Panhandler

$300 to $1000 a day. Cash. That’s good money no matter how you look at it.

He said his name was Bob. Bob Tossler*. I was out of work and had been looking for a job for about 3 weeks. One of my roommates in the apartment complex I lived in suggested I should speak with Bob, because he was always looking for people to help him out. This made no sense to me because I knew Bob was a panhandler; I had seen him standing on the sidewalk day after day asking people for money. “How could he possibly help me” I thought. Little did I know.

I spent another couple of days on interviews and looking for a “regular” job when one day, arriving home after an unsuccessful job search, Bob found me.

“I hear you’re looking for a job,” he said. I hesitated wondering where this conversation was going to lead to but then I replied “Yes.” Bob said he could show me how I could make some real money by working for him. I asked him how. “By doing what I do,” Bob replied with a big grin.

I must admit I was quite dubious, “how much could this guy really be making?’ I thought, so I asked him, his answer floored me. “I make between $300 to $1000 a day,” he said. “Cash. I am the “King of the Beggars.”

Now I wasn’t taken in by this report even though it had floored me. After I had recovered a moment, I figured he was lying, “he couldn’t possibly be making that much,” I thought. I would be wrong.

Bob must have sensed my disbelief. “Go with me for one day,” he said, “I’ll pay you 10 dollars an hour just to watch me. I’ll even let you hold all the money I receive so you’ll know I’m not cheating somehow. My average is about $350 a day, and I’ll pay you at the end of the day.” My mind raced. 10 dollars an hour? Just to watch someone else work? I’m sold! I was just about to say, but Bob must have interpreted my hesitation as reluctance, “I’ll even buy you breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said, “and not fast food either, I don’t eat that garbage. It’ll be a real meal at a nice restaurant. I never eat at home, so I know all the best places in the city.” If I wasn’t sold before, now I really am, 10 dollars an hour to watch someone else work and then free meals, where do I sign? I told Bob OK and he said to be ready by 7 AM tomorrow and he would pick me up.        

Bob was true to his word. We went to a Denny’s for breakfast (OK, not a Nice restaurant, but not fast food either), but for lunch, we stopped at a decent place. “This is nice,” I thought; for dinner we went to a family buffet, so even though we had not eaten at the Best places in the city (but the lunch venue was really good), we had not had fast food either.

We arrived at our location for the day by about 8:45. This was an upscale area of the city frequented by tourists. Many boutique arts and crafts stores and gift shops were located here. Nearby were streets lined with art galleries. Just a couple of blocks away were a group of upscale restaurants and nightclubs that opened in the evening.

That first day, Bob asked me to hold onto all the money he collected while he worked. That way he said, I could be sure that his estimate of an average of $350 was accurate. Well that first day Bob missed his estimate by nearly $100. He didn’t come in low, he exceeded it taking in nearly $450. The next day Bob received nearly $500. The next couple of days were less and by the end of the week, the average was about $350 a day as Bob had estimated, I was impressed, but what Bob did was clearly difficult. I wasn’t sure I could do it, even after a week of close observation.

At work, Bob was articulate, optimistic, engaging, enthusiastic and funny. He didn’t dress like a beggar or panhandler would, Bob always dressed up wearing neatly pressed khaki slacks, a dress shirt, a hat with a flap covering his neck in the back (to protect him from the ever-present sun) and an orange reflective traffic guard-like vest. He said we should wear comfortable athletic shoes of some type, the best I could afford, because we would be on our feet and walking all day.

Bob would approach every person who passed near him; he especially liked groups because he almost always got everyone in the group to give him money. Bob had his job down to a science. He said it took him nearly 15 years of trial and error to get it to this point and he still tweaked it a bit here and there just to try out a new angle. Sometimes it would work he said, sometimes it wouldn’t. One such time it didn’t work was when he wore a tie. His donations plummeted. Thinking one day might have been just a fluke, Bob wore the tie a couple more days but the results were the same each day; his donations were much lower.

What Bob did was unique. Bob would approach each person or group and extend his hand as if to shake that person’s hand. When that person put their hand out in return, Bob would put a trinket in their hand – and then vigorously resist accepting it back if they tried to give it back. The trinket was always some very inexpensive gift – a toy whistle, key ring or fold-up fan for example. Bob imported these from China for a few cents each.

Bob understood the psychology of giving something. Whenever someone gets something for free, most people feel a need to do something in return; they feel obligated to return the “favor,” regardless of the intrinsic value or utility of the trinket they have received. Bob understood this perfectly. By giving the person (or persons for groups) a ‘gift” that person now feels a subconscious obligation to immediately return that favor. By refusing to accept the “favor” if the person tries to give the gift back, Bob just increases the tension heightening that person’s sense of obligation. It was at this point that part two of Bob’s spiel would begin.

Bob told people he operated an animal shelter – which was true – technically. He would tell people how many thousands of pets he had saved over the last ten years and that he was now here because of the annual spay and neuter drive. Bob also wore a fanny pack that he would keep stuffed full of his trinkets and pamphlets. The pamphlets had a couple of photos of pets in his animal shelter along with a description beneath the picture of how the animal shelter had rescued so many pets over the years and how many people had happily adopted a pet from the shelter. As Bob launched into his speech, he would pull out a pamphlet for each listener and hand it to them, pointing to the pictures as he spoke. Bob would often tell of a family or child who had come to the shelter recently and found a pet they had been looking for and how happy the child or family was to find a lovable pet to take home. Bob was quite a ham and laid it all on very thickly. Within a few moments of his talk, your heart was almost bleeding to help these poor unfortunate animals.

Bob told me that a key to making the most money was to shut up as soon as you saw someone go for their wallet or pocketbook and switch to the “close.” At this point, Bob’s tenor would change. He would become more firm and stand up straighter. He would tell people how much it cost to care for a pet for one week and that was how much money he expected them to donate. If there was a group, he told them he expected each person in the group to donate the same amount, it wouldn’t be fair he said, if just one person donated. Usually this worked. More often than not, everyone in the group would donate if at least one person did. Overall, I would estimate that about 50% of all people Bob approached would donate some money to his cause.

During a quiet spell, Bob told me about what was really going on. He had incorporated his home as a non-profit – a 501(c)3 organization. He personally had four dogs and about a dozen cats; this often constituted the full complement of animals at his “animal shelter.” However, he also operated an animal phone adoption service. Here he paid a woman to answer two ads Bob had every day in the local newspaper. One ad read that a local phone adoption service for pets was looking for animals for good families. The other ad stated that a phone adoption service for pets had pets available for adoption. The woman who answered the phone would simply match the two groups up. Bob estimated that he averaged about 3 adoptions a day in this manner. He never saw the pets and he never took possession of the pets and never had to spend any money on them, he only paid the woman for her service using a phone Bob supplied for her.

Bob had used the money he received from his solicitations to place a down payment on the apartment building I was living in. And he owned his home outright he said. He also owned four cars and two boats plus all the latest electronics, but he nearly never used any of them because he “had” to work every day to keep his wife happy. Although somewhat true, it was obvious that Bob simply loved what he was doing.

Bob also had used the cash he received from the donations he had received to open a concession franchise business. Almost every fair, carnival, special event, block party or parade in the county featured at least two booths that were operated by Bob. One was a curly fry’s booth. The other booth sold light-up toys and glow bracelets. Bob estimated that each booth earned about $500 to $1000 a day in profit. Bob said that he had these booths operating for about 40 to 60 days a year depending on the employees he had available and the weather etc. Bob said he paid all the taxes due and even donated cash to other charities. Although he never mentioned it or knew that I knew, I also witnessed Bob handing out cash to people who needed it. Sometimes people would come to him for a loan to pay their rent or buy groceries. If Bob knew who you were and he knew you were telling the truth, Bob often gave what was asked of him. If Bob did not know you or suspected you may be asking for more than you really needed, he would offer a job instead – doing what he did of course. Some people took him up on his offer and a few succeeded.                    

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