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Panhandlers of Harvard Square: An essay in oil paintings, interviews

Painter Marc Clamage has painted struggling people in Cambridge for three years. Here’s what he’s seen.

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.

MAX

  • This is my first painting of 2013. Maxine, known as Max, was camped out next to the Harvard Coop with a sign that read “I see you but do you see me.” While I was painting, several panhandlers yelled at another woman about squatting on other people’s territory.  


KELLY

  • Kelly, working on a needlepoint, introduced me to her husband. After I paid her, an elderly panhandler came up and asked her for money. Without a second thought, Kelly gave her one of the fives I had just handed her. 

GARY

  • A Desert Storm vet, Gary did not actively solicit. At one point, I asked him if I was preventing him from making money. He smiled and said no. His wife, Whitney, also a panhandler, stopped by. She was wearing a face mask and was largely bald. She said she was going in for chemotherapy.

MICHAEL

  • “Let me look at your eyes,” a passerby told Michael. Satisfied, he gave him a $20 bill. “I used to be homeless, too,” the man said. “Now tell me your story.” Michael was working as a construction supervisor when he had a minor stroke. When he got out of the hospital, he had no money, no job, and no home.

MELVIN

  • Melvin spoke of working as a mechanic, then taking care of his dying mother, a breakdown, and ending up on the street. His big beef was with the buskers. People tended to walk right past the homeless if there was a street musician to give their money to. As I was finishing up, a young man in a white jacket and tie set up behind us and began to play the didgeridoo.

KIMBERLY

  • Stationed at the entrance to CVS, Kimberly asked every passerby for spare change. If they went in without making a donation, she would ask, “Maybe on your way out?” Most people gave her their change as they left, and she was getting a handout every two or three minutes.  

MERLIN AND SLIM

  • The come-on from Merlin (in the back) and Slim was “Spare change for Arizona Iced Tea.” When they’d collected enough, Slim bought two Arizona Iced Teas. They then switched to “Spare change for pizza.” I have no doubt that’s what they had for lunch. 

  • Visit Marc Clamage’s website, IPaintWhatISee.com, to view the more than 30 works in his ongoing series. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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