Panhandling in Palm Springs

Palm Springs, Calif., may have a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, but the reality is somewhat different. Fact is, the wealth has moved down the road to the neighboring desert towns of Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, and Indian Wells, taking with it the upscale stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and luxury car dealerships.

Thank heavens the rich folks weren’t able to take Mount San Jacinto with them when they moved farther down Route 111. They have to settle for the foothills, while I’m just footsteps from Chino Canyon and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

I like the fun, funky vibe of Palm Springs, which owes a lot to the lively gay scene. I have spent many happy hours combing the racks at Revivals, a chain of thrift shops that benefits the Desert AIDS Project, and getting fashion tips from ever-helpful Drew at Chico’s downtown. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve gotten a makeover on Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. Don’t worry, I’m not “outing” Drew. He’s out — so is half the town!

Another favorite Palm Springs pastime of mine is window-shopping at the used classic car lots. I dream of replacing the baby blue 1966 Ford Mustang that I crashed back in December, 1977. Saturn was at 0 degrees of Virgo then, quite close to where it is now. Maybe that’s why I’m eyeing Mustangs again. Fortunately, transiting Mars isn’t hanging around my Uranus in Leo, the way it was then. Mars/Uranus is an accident-prone aspect.

You know when I first decided that I had to have a 1966 Mustang? It was back in 1966, when I was watching That Girl starring Marlo Thomas. Her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger (Ted Bessell) drove a Mustang and worked for Newsview, obviously a stand-in for Newsweek magazine.

Now, most 6-year-old girls probably wanted to be an actress like Ann Marie, the character played by Thomas. Not me. I wanted to be Donald Hollinger because he worked for a magazine in New York and drove a Mustang. Even then, I could see it was much easier to be a journalist than an actress!

There’s no car in my life right now, and we’re living in what the locals call the “windy North side” of Palm Springs. When I want to take a break from my laptop, I make the 2-mile trek down to the heart of downtown. Along the way, I often encounter a fair number of homeless people, some of whom should be in rehab for drug or alcohol addiction or taking medication for mental illness.

Yesterday, I was walking down Palm Canyon Drive toward downtown when a bright-eyed, clean-cut young man with a ponytail approached me. I assumed he was going to ask for directions. I avoid making eye contact with folks who look scary and cross the street if they appear to be dangerous, but this kid seemed O.K. 

I was shocked when he gave me a big smile and said, “Hi, I just paid my rent and I don’t have any money. I get paid on the 5th. Could you give me a dollar?” (No one ever asks for anything less than a dollar here. Why not leave the contribution to the donor’s discretion? Somebody might hand you a $20 bill.)

“No, I’m sorry,” I said. But what I really wanted to say is: “I don’t have the money to pay my rent yet.”

Today is May Day, and the internalized voice of a long-lost Commie friend points out how little capitalism has achieved for the masses. He was Jewish boy from the Bronx who grew up during the Depression and got involved in organizing from the get-go, as his mother was shop steward of her milliners’ union. If he were still here, I’d hit him with one of my favorite John Kenneth Galbraith quotes: “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”

After my rant yesterday against folks who blame the victim, I can’t very well attack yesterday’s panhandler. But he got me thinking. None of the jobs around here, including the one that my husband has at an upscale golf resort, pay more than $11 an hour. That produces a paycheck of about $800 every two weeks.

The going rate for a one-bedroom apartment out here is $800 a month, though you can find one for a little less in August, when the temperature hits 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Throw in a car payment, auto insurance, and $4-a-gallon gasoline (some people do ride the bus out here, but it’s mostly schoolchildren and recent immigrants) and there’s not much left over.

My beggar yesterday was well-groomed and well-spoken. He was too healthy to be a crystal meth addict, though there are plenty of them in these parts. The young man looked about 22. He was so fresh-faced that if you cut his hair and gave him a suit, he could pass for a Mormon missionary. 

Is all his money going to pay off his student loans? Could be. Or does our vaunted service economy not pay him a “living” wage? I don’t know the answer. Maybe he’s been hitting the slots at the Spa Resort Casino, which, like a lot of Palm Springs, is owned by the Agua Caliente Indian tribe.

Even if I can’t afford the baby blue 1966 Mustang, maybe I need to splurge on a new retro Electra bicycle so I can dodge the beggars. Brother, can you spare a dollar?