Under The Radar - UB Institute for Pan Handling & Crack Head Studies


By Francis White

“They’re coming to get you Martha.” It seems like its World War Z outside in Buffalo NY these days. Have you been out there? Have you seen all of them? They’re everywhere. Have you been to the bodega, the gas station, the grocery store, the movie theater, the organic foods spot, the chicken wing spot, Applebee’s, or the laundromat? They’re crawling all over the place. Who? The pan handlers, that’s who!

It seems to me, or I could just be seeing things, that as Buffalo has lost industry, population, Super Bowls, and architecture, it has gained a multitude of pan handlers. As a matter of fact, I think we now have competing pan handling sports leagues operating out of the Queen City now. Everywhere I go, to get food, to wash my clothes, to walk my dog, to walk through the park, I have been solicited. I even thought I saw somebody outside my bathroom door about to ask me for some change last night.

I was born and raised here, and this activity has heavily increased over the years. When I was growing up most of the people you’d see all the time were the same people. You were able to kind of get to learn their story of why they do what they do. In my neighborhood, and in mainstream gathering places, like downtown most of the pan handlers I would see would be black or African American, and a few old seemingly drunk white dudes. But now, pan handlers come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors. And, new and improved ones seem to be springing out of the wood work every day. There was the few hippy hipster types I have encountered recently that have been asking for money. There are the younger guys with a fresh pair of “J’s on they feet” that have been hitting me up for some change. I've also been hit up by women of all ages and ethnicities.

I’m not bashing pan handling at all, because “a closed mouth doesn't get fed”, people do fall on hard times, and I’d rather they do that than resort to something crazier like conducting an armed robbery. I just want to point out something. There could be many reasons why people resort to pan handling; supplementing their income (the working poor), they don’t want to work a regular job, or they might have chosen this “occupation” as their profession. To me, poverty (which includes the lack of a sustainable economy and living wage jobs) is at the root of this epidemic.

U.S. Census figures say that between 2009 and 2013, about 30% of the city’s population lived below the poverty line. That means that 3 out of 10, or 30 out of 100 people can barely make enough money to survive in Buffalo. That’s a pretty significant number.

The other issue that comes to mind when I think of poverty and pan handling is drug abuse. When one falls on hard times, escaping from reality in the form of drug use and abuse tends not be too far behind. Also, one's fall from grace could have been due to drug abuse. I watched a report on the news not too long ago where the director of neonatalogy at Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo said that he has seen between 100-200 babies a year go through Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. This is a baby born addicted to drugs, what we used to call "crack babies" growing up. This drug abuse is alive, real in our communities, and more widespread than we have realized. 

I'm saying all of this to say that "I support an Institute for Pan Handling and Crack Head Studies" on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Just kidding, but I got the inspiration from one of my favorite Facebook bloggers Lonnie Barlow. Here's what he said the other day; "UB (University at Buffalo) should establish an institute for Pan Handling and Crack Head Studies on their downtown Medical Campus. It would be ahead of its time and revolutionary. ‪‎Buffalo NY is becoming the capital for professional pan handling. ‪#‎BuffaloForRealForReal‬"

To me it's a funny, satirical way of saying that the problems that arise from poverty cannot be wished away, and they will not go away on their own. It took practices of collective society or people for them to get here, and it will take at least the same for this problem to go away. You can't ignore it, I mean you can, but eventually you'll get the World War Z epidemic we're beginning to see outside. I remember visiting New York City a couple of years ago with colleagues. I remember somebody in our group wondering where all of the city's poor were actually living now (we were in Manhattan). Poverty hasn't been cured here and we speculated what this byproduct of former Mayor Giuliani's "Quality of Life" campaigns in the 1990's has actually resulted in. 

Maybe we'll take a different approach here in Buffalo and we can work to create a national model. Maybe we can create things that will begin to solve the problem rather than hide them underground in old subway tunnels.