I Beg Your Pardon

by Uche Nworah

How does one begin to understand the psyche of beggars? Not your usual street beggars who due to no fault of theirs have to brave the elements in search of their daily bread. I’m talking about your uniformed or corporate beggars, who have been hired to protect life and property or to man the front office of organisations either as security or customer service officers.

I have been having a good time lately arm twisting these emergency beggars and always chuckle anytime I take them down in their own game. Now, don’t you go calling me Mr. Stingy for refusing to be shaken down by these guys because I won’t have none of it, it’s just that I have sworn that I won’t be taken for a sucker anymore.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t blame them too much since Nigeria at 48 is still a beggar nation (no puns intended), or how else will you describe a country that one would have thought has learnt a lesson or two from past debt experiences, but one that still goes ahead borrowing despite the respite granted from the 2005 debt pardon and partial write-off by the Paris Club. Unless we all have not been reading the same papers but I still catch news stories of a loan here, and another there being taken by state governments and even the federal government. I shudder to think what such little loan trickles will amount to in the coming years.

Anyway, back to the issue of uniformed corporate beggars. I had a good laugh the other day at an ATM machine along Ozumba Mbadiwe Avenue in the Victoria Island area of Lagos. By the time I arrived to pick up some cash, there were already 2 ladies and a man hovering over the cash machine. I had noticed the 6 roving eyes trailing me from the time I parked my car and alighted. On getting nearer to the cash machine, I was greeted with a disarming smile and chorus of “Oga, good afternoon sir”. I looked up in surprise and acknowledged the greeting.

Next was the interrogation: “Oga, have you come to collect money?” I wondered what else I had come to do in broad daylight on the streets of Lagos, rob the bank? But by the time any answer could come out of my mouth, my battle ready mindset had already triggered into action. I knew immediately the game my new found friends were playing, they were softening me up for the strike.

As I eagerly waited to use the ATM machine, one of the ladies now volunteered to tell me what all three of them where actually doing peering into the ATM screen together. “Oga, we came to check and collect our salaries”. What this piece of information had to do with me was better left to the imagination. I did not utter another word, sensing that the lead was about to dry up, the leading lady now became more boisterous. “Oga, happy weekend o!”. Now irritated, I politely asked her not to call me Oga anymore, and that I was in a hurry; could she please conclude her transaction with her crew so I can do mine.

Perhaps I should have kept quite, in unison, all three volunteered to interrupt their salary checking and collection transaction to make way for me. “Oga, please come and collect, anything for your children?” asked the leading lady. That was a new one. I had been used to hearing “Anything for the boys”, but children? I was almost struggling to hold back the laughter. As if on cue, and not wanting to be left or rather edged out of any potential spoils from the begging scam, the lone male in the trio quipped: “Oga, your boy dey here o”.

Just as I was about to punch in my password, I felt an urge to look through my shoulders, just incase my new found friends were not what they claimed. They met my suspicious eyes with a reassuring look. As I counted my money, I was already calculating how I will make a dash for the car but I was beaten to it. How the leading lady managed to race to my car door is still a mystery to me till this day. When I saw her outstretched right hand waiting to pull open the door for me, I broke her rhythm and did not unlock the door, pretending as if the car remote control had malfunctioned.

I found the whole episode amusing, I couldn’t help thinking that the art of begging has now entered another level by what I had just experienced. I used to think that if I could beat the security guards at Chicken Republic, Jevnik, Mama Cass or TFC, or even some of the guys at my office, that I was safe, I was wrong. The battle for our money has now been taken to the cash dispensing point, where it matters most. This time there won’t be any excuse anymore not to part with your cash. You can’t claim not to have any on you after being ‘caught in the act’ withdrawing your own cash. Unless the heavens favour you by rigging the ATM machine to be out of cash or to breakdown.

My failure to unlock the car caught the leading lady unawares, and within that small window of lull and inactivity, as she was obviously calculating her next move, I unlocked, dived in and locked myself in, just in case she attempted to force open the door. By the time she could recover, I was already tearing into the newly laid Ozumba Mbadiwe Avenue asphalt leaving behind the disappointed trio to re-tool their skills for the next ‘mugu’. I almost laughed myself silly on the way but still wondered why I should be the one running away.

Next up, there was this other day at an eatery along Awolowo road. The security man who pointed out a parking spot that was there for everyone including the blind to see thought he had me wrapped up but little did he know that he was in for the surprise of his life. Lunch finished, it was time to go. From a mile away, I could see his devious but knowing smile, as if he was telling me, “I’m the one who showed you where to park, you must reward me for that”. Perhaps on another day, I would have but not on this day when I was already feeling irritable by the damage guys like him are doing to the reputation of businesses where they are guarding through their rude, customer-unfriendly begging activities.

What I thought wise to do was not to acknowledge his knowing look and smile, that which would have automatically roped me in as a willing accomplice in a customer shake-down scam. There are several ways of doing this, you could pretend to be having an animated conversation on the phone and brush past the guard who may have inched so close to ensure that you see him. You may pretend to be having a serious business discussion with whomever may be in your company at the time, the frown on your face is enough to alert even Donald Trump not to bother at this time, call it a “Don’t disturb frown’ if you like. Finally, you could pretend to be invincible like Pa Jimoh of Ikebe Super fame, walk straight past , get into your car and zoom off. I opted for the later oblivious of whatever silent curse or abuse that were coming out of the guard’s mouth.

As for some of our uniformed men, the police and their other uniformed colleagues, theirs is a story for another day. I do not need to recount their several “Happy Weekend” “Happy Monday”, “Happy Tuesday” and “Happy Anything” greetings, which usually precedes their gun-point shakedown or extortion.

I can not say that I have not fallen at times to the many tricks of corporate and uniformed beggars, but I like to pride myself that I only fall at my own terms. Give me a good service and a smile, don’t arm twist me, just maybe and you have my tip.

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