May 4, 2010 in City

Panhandler’s dubious plea sparks one-man protest

By The Spokesman-Review
J. Bart Rayniak photo

John C. Fisher is on a one-man crusade to stop panhandling in Spokane Valley. He stood with his professionally made sign May 3, 2010, at the entrance of Walmart, a favorite spot for panhandlers. He will take his sign to the Spokane Valley city council meeting Tuesday night to make his point.
(Full-size photo)

We all like to think that we’re in control of our destinies, but are we really?

Take John C. Fisher, for example. The 49-year-old Spokane Valley man swears he never planned on launching a one-man crusade against the panhandlers that prowl his hometown.

The hours of his day, he said, are full enough with learning the machinist trade through daily classes at Spokane Community College.

Then one day, Fisher drove past a shabby character holding a cardboard sign on the sidewalk at Sprague and Sullivan. It read: “18 dollars short for a bus ticket to Mesa, Arizona.”

Fisher didn’t think much of the man’s travel woes until he kept seeing him – four days in a row!

You didn’t need to consult Stephen Hawking to figure out that this dude didn’t really want a Greyhound ride to the Grand Canyon State.

Who can say what happened to Fisher at that moment?

Call it a tipping point. Call it a flash of motivation. But something clicked on in the part of Fisher’s brain that controls civic activism.

Fisher went home. He drew his own double-sided sign that featured the word “Panhandling” surrounded by a large red-slashed circle. Then he tacked his sign to a stick and aimed his red Ford pickup back to where Arizona Man was trolling for suckers.

Fisher spent the next 2 ½ hours shadowing the panhandler.

In that time Fisher says he learned:

1. The guy said his name was Mike. 2. Mike claimed he made better than minimum wage panhandling. 3. Mike said getting a real job was for losers. 4. Whatever Mike was making, it was enough to afford a cell phone, from which he took incoming calls from a panhandling partner working another location.

One session of this madness would have been enough for most people. Especially considering the way some drivers reacted to Fisher’s anti-panhandling message.

“Three people still gave him money, even though I informed them that he never changes his sign, and that he has no intention of going to Arizona,” Fisher stated in a letter of explanation that he hands out to anyone interested.

Funny thing. Meeting Mike only calcified Fisher’s resolve.

Fisher scrapped his homemade sign for a couple of professionally made placards that read: “Stop the Panhandlers, Keep Your Change.”

In the last two months, Fisher estimated he’s gone anti-panhandling at least three dozen times.

And tonight, he said, he will take his signs to the Spokane Valley City Council meeting. His aim is to eventually get the council to pass tougher begging laws or, should that fail, at least get council members discussing the problem.

In Fisher’s eyes, panhandling is a nuisance the Valley needs to crack down on. Nobody can accuse Fisher of not doing his homework. He has logged time, he said, in all the prime panhandling areas, which include: Sprague and Pines, freeway on and off ramps and the Walmart parking lot, where beggars often use the ol’ empty gas can ploy. This is where a gas can-toting scammer will approach a shopper with a hard luck tale about running on empty.

I learned about Fisher and his Panhandle Patrol when he sent me an e-mail to see if I was interested.

I told him I certainly was. I love a good lost cause story. So I drove out to the Valley one afternoon and met Fisher in a parking lot at Sprague and Pines. He struck me as an articulate, affable guy on a Don Quixote-like quest.

“I hope I’m not tilting at windmills,” he said.

My idea was to accompany Fisher on one of his sidewalk sojourns. But he had barely removed his signs from his Ford before we had company. Our visitor was a burly guy with a buzz cut and a single teardrop tattooed below the corner of his right eye.

He was a panhandler Fisher had earlier nicknamed “Cry Baby,” due to the tattoo.

One thing was clear. He wasn’t at all happy about Fisher’s efforts to hurt his business, although he was willing to talk about it.

Boy, was he ever willing to talk about it. In fact, Motor Mouth is a more apt moniker for this bruiser.

In the half-hour he was with us, I learned:

1. Motor Mouth can’t catch a break. 2. Motor Mouth had done four years in prison. 3. Motor Mouth has an anger problem. 4. Motor Mouth has many scars on the top of his shorn head that were put there thanks to “the po-lice.” 5. Did I mention that Motor Mouth can’t catch a break?

Fisher just stood his ground, smiling. He told the self-confessed felon that he wasn’t moved by the sob story. “I’m callous,” he told him, adding that he had heard it all before.

“Everybody has an excuse. Everybody says the same thing.”

I said goodbye and left Fisher at his truck with his signs. Tilting at windmills is one thing. Tilting at tattooed scarred ex-cons with anger issues is a whole different matter.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at

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