The Panhandler’s Breath

by Robin Dance


He slipped in sideways between the closing elevator doors, as if he were late to a meeting; he pressed the “5″ without looking. Instead of suit and tie, though, baggy pants and faded navy hung on his tall, slim frame.

His stealth entry stiffened the hairs on the back of my neck.

I had noticed him a few seconds earlier, just after we had parted a sea of clamorous teens. He was smiling, grandfatherly, standing maybe 30 feet away where the downtown electric shuttle picks up.

I had no idea he had been watching us, studying us, predator patiently awaiting his next prey.

The four of us were sealed in a four-by-six-foot metal tomb. Tomb–that thought really muscled its way into my mind. I wondered if he had a knife in his pocket. I wanted to protect my son.

Fight or flight pumped adrenaline but there was no where to run.

Extreme and ridiculous, these thoughts and more flashed through my mind. The Stranger began speaking.

“Yessir, I see you’re a family man with your wife and your son here…” and he nodded in my and my son’s direction.

“…you see I’m homeless and all I’ve got…” and on queue, he reached into his left pocket and pulled out two old pennies blackened with age. Two cents to his name?! It was all so contrived, too practiced, and I didn’t believe a word he was saying.

It was then I smelled it, though ~ the small space lent itself to that ~ and I doubted my doubt.

His breath.

It wasn’t the scent of alcohol. His eyes weren’t red, his voice didn’t waver; his wizened face matched his graying hair.

His breath was morning’s.  Zoo breath–the pet name I’d given to the scent inhaled when kissing my children awake when they were little.  But it was nighttime.

He needed to brush his teeth. I wondered how long it had been since he brushed his teeth.

The elevator door opened and I gave him our leftover pizza as my son and I brushed past him. My husband handed him a bill and the Stranger thanked and God blessed him.

The elevator door closed behind us. I was relieved but conflicted.

We got in the car and emptied our thoughts–

“I didn’t believe a word he said.”

“That made me nervous.”

“I wonder if he’ll really eat the pizza.”

In the quiet and the dark, we were left to our own thoughts.  I wondered what my son had taken away from the exchange.

Was this man hungry, on his way to sleeping in a box, on the ground, behind parked cars?  Was it just a con?  Regardless of the truth, for an old man to resort to begging he has to be desperate. The money my husband gave him will never be missed. It made me realize we’ve been entrusted with much and given much. Materially, yes, but more so spiritually. Loved, chosen, forgiven, redeemed, graced, lavished–every spiritual blessing. E v e r y.

There’s a part of me that wishes I would have been brave enough to ask the man his story, made sure he knew he was loved…and bought him a tooth brush.

Later, it occurred to me he could have been an angel.  Regardless, isn’t it always right to extend generosity, kindness, grace and hospitality? Then it’s not about you or the stranger or the circumstance, it’s about a simple, God-glorifying response.

Had we entertained an angel unaware? We’ll never know.

But it wouldn’t be the first time the Breath of Heaven smelled like a zoo.


10 Responses to “The Panhandler’s Breath”

  1. Cal Harrelson December 9, 2013 at 9:49 am #

    Love your writing Robin. It’s all so sincere. “Sincere” makes us think. It makes us believe. It makes us take note. It makes us repeat the story to someone. It makes us search past the period. Thank you.

    • Robin Dance December 10, 2013 at 7:15 am #


      LOVE seeing you here! And thank you for your generous words. They’re a gift this morning.

  2. Jemelene December 9, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    It’s always right to do the right thing. It sounds to me like you did.

    • Robin Dance December 10, 2013 at 7:17 am #


      Sometimes it feels like there are “degrees of right”; regardless, agreed–it’s never wrong to do the right thing (but sometimes it’s not so easy to decide what the rightest thing is…).

  3. Clayton December 9, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    The real question is: what will you do next time?

    “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, ryou shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but syou shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. 9 Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your teye look grudgingly1 on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he ucry to the Lord against you, and vyou be guilty of sin. 10 You shall give to him freely, and wyour heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because xfor this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 For ythere will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, s‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’

    – Deuteronomy 15:7-11

    • Robin Dance December 10, 2013 at 7:20 am #


      Great question–because there WAS a next time and I didn’t feel great about my response. As a woman, when a man approaches me with need (and a “story” that doesn’t feel completely true….), my “fight or flight” kicks in. On the time in question, I sought help from a store manager (I was approached in a store…) to help this man get help. I didn’t want to ask more questions of him because his bold approach unnerved me; but later, he haunted me (b/c I didn’t ask more). Anyway…like I asked above, Are there “degrees of right”? I secured help for the man, but I could have done more….

  4. Diana Trautwein December 9, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    Oh, well done, Robin. I know those second thoughts so very well. And I know that a lot of pan-handling is too close to the grifter’s game for comfort. But this story? It feels different. Maybe it’s the zoo-breath that is the giveaway. You reached past your fear, even if just a little bit. Maybe next time, you’ll reach even further? I keep hoping that I will, too.

    • Robin Dance December 10, 2013 at 7:27 am #


      Who knew God could use someone’s bad breath to get to you, right? I wish I were braver and took greater risk; men who are bigger than me asking for help feel predatory, calculated. I suppose I need to pray for discernment in how to help; and I wonder if my prayers for “them” matter…because, typically, I DO pray for these people. Which never feels like anything…..

  5. Lina December 10, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    What a great story Robin. I understand your dilemma too. Especially when being approached in such a bold fashion. I have come to the conclusion personally that if someone is willing to beg, there is some kind of need. But I don’t give money to those who seem to be addicted, I give food instead. That kind of “need” is not quenched with money but they might still need a meal.

    To help overcome my fear of being approached I try to remember that I have only been harmed by “friends” in my past and never strangers. I know this is only my truth, but that and quick urgent prayers always helps me.

    In fact, I just handed a young man a $10 bill (which is more than I usually give) as I was headed out of the McDonald’s drive thru the other night. I simply thought “I am treating myself, why not him too”. He said “thank you” and then upon seeing how much the bill was said an even louder more emphatic “THANK you”. It touched my heart. When I drove off I realized I had given him the money out my passenger side window and my purse was right there on the seat. He could easily have taken it and run off if he had had the inkling to do so…. Instead he put down his sign and went in where it was warm and hopefully had a good meal.


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