A FEW YEARS AGO, I began to notice that the panhandlers I’d been seeing near my workplace in Harvard Square seemed more plentiful, younger, more troubled. There were lots of new “passing through, need food” signs, and even whole families begging — some are still there. I used to hurry by them, but then I began to stop. Each face tells a story, I realized, and I would try to capture as many as I could through a series of oil paintings.
I do not ask the panhandlers to “pose” for me, but to carry on with their business. I pay each person $10, though I wish I could afford more, because they earn that small fee in the hour or two it takes me to paint them. Over that time, we often get to talking, which has been a privilege and an education. I’ve seen or heard many human dramas: the tragic love story of Gary and Whitney; squabbles over the best places to work; the mysterious figure everyone calls “The Rabbi,” stuffing $20 bills into cups and disappearing before anyone can see his face. I’ve witnessed a few instances of cruelty, but many more of thoughtfulness and generosity. And when I head home, I’m always struck by one thought: There but for the grace of God go the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why we find panhandlers so hard to look at.