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Charitable Reminiscences
by [?]

My next familiar mendicant was a vender of printed ballads. These effusions were so stale, atrocious, and unsalable in their character, that it was easy to detect that hypocrisy, which–in imitation of more ambitious beggary–veiled the real eleemosynary appeal under the thin pretext of offering an equivalent. This beggar–an aged female in a rusty bonnet–I unconsciously precipitated upon myself in an evil moment. On our first meeting, while distractedly turning over the ballads, I came upon a certain production entitled, I think, “The Fire Zouave,” and was struck with the truly patriotic and American manner in which “Zouave” was made to rhyme in different stanzas with “grave, brave, save, and glaive.” As I purchased it at once, with a gratified expression of countenance, it soon became evident that the act was misconstrued by my poor friend, who from that moment never ceased to haunt me. Perhaps in the whole course of her precarious existence she had never before sold a ballad. My solitary purchase evidently made me, in her eyes, a customer, and in a measure exalted her vocation; so thereafter she regularly used to look in at my door, with a chirping, confident air, and the question, “Any more songs to-day?” as though it were some necessary article of daily consumption. I never took any more of her songs, although that circumstance did not shake her faith in my literary taste; my abstinence from this exciting mental pabulum being probably ascribed to charitable motives. She was finally absorbed by the S. F. B. A., who have probably made a proper disposition of her effects. She was a little old woman, of Celtic origin, predisposed to melancholy, and looking as if she had read most of her ballads.

My next reminiscence takes the shape of a very seedy individual, who had, for three or four years, been vainly attempting to get back to his relatives in Illinois, where sympathizing friends and a comfortable almshouse awaited him. Only a few dollars, he informed me,–the uncontributed remainder of the amount necessary to purchase a steerage ticket,–stood in his way. These last few dollars seem to have been most difficult to get, and he had wandered about, a sort of antithetical Flying Dutchman, forever putting to sea, yet never getting away from shore. He was a “49-er,” and had recently been blown up in a tunnel, or had fallen down a shaft, I forget which. This sad accident obliged him to use large quantities of whiskey as a liniment, which, he informed me, occasioned the mild fragrance which his garments exhaled. Though belonging to the same class, he was not to be confounded with the unfortunate miner who could not get back to his claim without pecuniary assistance, or the desolate Italian, who hopelessly handed you a document in a foreign language, very much bethumbed and illegible,–which, in your ignorance of the tongue, you couldn’t help suspiciously feeling might have been a price current, but which you could see was proffered as an excuse for alms. Indeed, whenever any stranger handed me, without speaking, an open document, which bore the marks of having been carried in the greasy lining of a hat, I always felt safe in giving him a quarter and dismissing him without further questioning. I always noticed that these circular letters, when written in the vernacular, were remarkable for their beautiful caligraphy and grammatical inaccuracy, and that they all seem to have been written by the same hand. Perhaps indigence exercises a peculiar and equal effect upon the handwriting.

I recall a few occasional mendicants whose faces were less familiar. One afternoon a most extraordinary Irishman, with a black eye, a bruised hat, and other traces of past enjoyment, waited upon me with a pitiful story of destitution and want, and concluded by requesting the usual trifle. I replied, with some severity, that if I gave him a dime he would probably spend it for drink. “Be Gorra! but you’re roight–I wad that!” he answered promptly. I was so much taken aback by this unexpected exhibition of frankness that I instantly handed over the dime. It seems that Truth had survived the wreck of his other virtues; he did get drunk, and, impelled by a like conscientious sense of duty, exhibited himself to me in that state a few hours after, to show that my bounty had not been misapplied.

In spite of the peculiar characters of these reminiscences, I cannot help feeling a certain regret at the decay of Professional Mendicancy. Perhaps it may be owing to a lingering trace of that youthful superstition which saw in all beggars a possible prince or fairy, and invested their calling with a mysterious awe. Perhaps it may be from a belief that there is something in the old-fashioned alms-givings and actual contact with misery that is wholesome for both donor and recipient, and that any system which interposes a third party between them is only putting on a thick glove, which, while it preserves us from contagion, absorbs and deadens the kindly pressure of our hand. It is a very pleasant thing to purchase relief from the annoyance and trouble of having to weigh the claims of an afflicted neighbor. As I turn over these printed tickets, which the courtesy of the San Francisco Benevolent Association has–by a slight stretch of the imagination in supposing that any sane unfortunate might rashly seek relief from a newspaper office–conveyed to these editorial hands, I cannot help wondering whether, when in our last extremity we come to draw upon the Immeasurable Bounty, it will be necessary to present a ticket.