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Opinion Shapers

Steve Unger

Among our many common axioms and proverbial clichés, one of the most popular is probably “Beggars can’t be choosers.” I’d bet both dollars in my wallet that you’ve either used that expression or you’ve at least heard somebody else say it. It’s a neat little comment that covers a lot of negotiations and rationalizations.

But is it really true? Who says beggars have to give up their freedom of choice? Maybe a committee of modern-day corporate lawyers should amend the statement with some qualifying weasel words, such as “Under most normal conditions, beggars may not have the option to become choosers.” You know, sort of leave that door open to avoid making unsupportable claims.

This minor moral dilemma has been bothering me all week as my family is in the process of moving to a new home. As often happens to average Americans, we’ve discovered that we simply have too much stuff, and I wanted to donate several items to charity. Although “beggar” is a pretty harsh word, there are always poor people in society who can benefit from somebody else’s hand-me-downs.

Well, it’s not all that simple. Have you tried to give away any beds lately? For some reason – maybe the fear of weird diseases or the well-publicized resurgence of bedbugs – when you offer some organizations a used mattress nowadays, they freak out a little. I wanted to be insulted but tried not to take the rejection personally.

Obviously, when you go to a swanky hotel or high-class resort (or cruise ship, but let’s skip that), you’re usually sleeping on a previously occupied bed, right? How do you think the typical self-respecting hotel manager would react to a guest who insisted on having a new mattress every time?

But nonetheless, certain charities evidently have blanket policies – accidental pun not intended – to turn down (sorry, another unexpected sheet reference) donations of other people’s bedding. Maybe I’m being naïve about the whole situation, but I suspect there’s some neglected person out there in our city who’s sleeping on a floor or a sheet of plywood and would love to have a real mattress, even if it’s been in somebody else’s home for a few years.

Once I got past the “No beds” policy, I was then stumped by a couple of different organizations which said they take only “gently used” furniture and toys. When I pressed for details, they pretty much said that scuffs or scrapes or worn spots rendered my donations unacceptable. Really? In my college days, I don’t think my friends ever furnished their rooms with anything but scuffed and dinged items.

As I stewed about this conundrum, a number of old recollections popped into my head, some more disturbing than others.

I had an uncle who grew up during the Depression in a family with no money, and he once told me a story about wanting a new bicycle for Christmas when he was a kid. His father had managed to save enough money to buy him the bike, but it was a used one. My uncle said that instead of being appreciative, he actually got upset about the bike not being new. He then tearfully described the look of incredible pain on his parents’ faces. He had been a beggar without a choice, and he blew it, leaving deep emotional scars years later.

But his remorse isn’t universal. A co-worker and I were on a business trip to New York City in 1979, before Rudy Giuliani cleaned the vagrants out of Manhattan. Walking down the street one night, we were approached by a panhandler. “Help a guy out with some spare change?” he asked.

My friend handed the man a quarter, and the guy looked genuinely shocked. “What am I supposed to do with this?!” he barked. My level-headed cohort answered, “Well, if the next person you ask gives you a quarter, and a few more people after that, pretty soon you’ve got a couple of bucks.”

The bum didn’t like that plan. He actually threw the coin down at our feet and said, “The hell with you,” then stormed off, muttering. That should have been my first clue that beggars can indeed be choosers.

On a positive note, Catholic Charities of St. Louis connected me with a group in Wellston which gladly accepts household goods in not-so-pristine condition, even beds. Hooray! I’m so glad to know our useful items won’t wind up in the trash, because at least landfills aren’t choosy.

No wait . . . I just found out they don’t take Styrofoam. Gee, it’s never easy, is it?

Steve Unger has been professionally writing for 30-plus years to help companies sell stuff. His Journal columns are a labor of love to salute the people, places and charm of St. Louis. If you’d like to share a memory of St. Louis or just drop him a line, he can be reached at