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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Panhandlers' Paradise or Purgatory

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An ill-shaven man wearing tattered army camouflage and leaning on a crutch stood ahead of me in line at the small grocery store. A pants leg dangled empty. On the counter stood a small mountain of coins.

I had stopped by the neighborhood shop that evening to pick up some milk. He had come in to swap a day's earnings from panhandling at the busy nearby intersection.

The young cashier rapidly counted the coins, creating small piles and keeping a tally on a scrap of paper. The other customers waited patiently.

Reaching the last ruble coin, she reached into the cash register and pulled out a 500 ruble note, a 100 ruble note and several 10s, the equivalent of about $25. She handed the bills to the man and pushed over a few leftover coins.

"Not as good as usual," she said with a smile.

"I know," he grumbled. "It's the hot weather. Drivers are more irritable."

"See you tomorrow," she called as he shuffled out of the store.

The cashier turned to the next customer. "You should see him on some days. He sometimes brings in up to 1,500 rubles. It would be more profitable for me to quit my job and hit the streets."

Panhandlers seem to be everywhere, on the streets, at train stations and in the metro and underpasses. They kneel on sidewalks, clutching a cheap icon in grimy hands. They walk through metro cars with hand-scrawled signs explaining the urgent need to raise cash for an operation or just to eat dinner. They stand with drooling toddlers in filthy rags near the waiting lounges in train stations. They wait with their muzzled dogs and calico kittens.

One sunny afternoon last summer, I saw a young brother and sister begging on Tverskaya Ulitsa with a fat rat and clearly disgruntled owl, in a possible nod to Harry Potter.

Like the one-legged man, many are making a decent living collecting spare change. A young mother with a couple kids told me that she earned about $30 a day in metro stations. She relied on the mercy of strangers three times a week and spent the rest of the time at home with her bedridden husband. She started panhandling after he fell ill and lost his job.

"There is nothing else that I can do to earn money to feed my family," she said. "I felt ashamed at first, but now ... " Her voice trailed off.

Another time I saw a gnarled, white-haired beggar shaking in his shoes in the Pushkin Square underpass. His watery blue eyes were filled with fear, and his whole body trembled as he accepted a bill. As I walked away, three young men pounced on him and pried the bill from his fingers.

The biggest hearts seem to belong to the passersby struggling to make ends meet -- the young student, the office worker in ill-fitting slacks and the plodding pensioner. My friend Tanya always finds a ruble or two in her purse for young mothers, even though she earns just $200 a month.

Dima readily offered his change until one old woman complained. He dropped 50 kopeks (3 cents) into her outstretched hand, and she threw it back at him. She shrieked that if he was going to take pity on beggars, he should be more generous.

"I couldn't believe it," Dima said. "You'd think she'd be grateful for every kopek she got."

Kolya has a stock answer every time he's approached for a handout. "I'm also unemployed," he says, shaking his head.

The panhandler sometimes apologizes for Kolya's bad luck before wandering over to the next pedestrian. One old man tried to press a few rubles into Kolya's hand. He declined.

Andrew McChesney is deputy editor of The Moscow Times.