Beggars and Buskers, Musicians and Thieves, Part I
One night, I had to take the four train into lower Manhattan to go to a party. At my stop, Kingsbridge, the four is elevated, and as I walked up the clattering metal steps, I noticed the guy in front of me. He was blond-haired and ruddy, about 5'6", with a backwards-facing Yankees baseball cap, baggy pants, and a baseball shirt. As he swaggered up the steps, he carried a cane in his left hand and swung it in slow, lazy circles.
When we get to the platform, he staked out a spot on the southern end, and I made a beeline in the opposite direction. He seemed oddly familiar, and his aggressive stance and jaunty motions made me nervous. He was pacing back and forth, the cane swinging in the air like it was eager to hit something. I wasn't interested in getting in a fight, and this guy was spoiling for one.
He started to wander up and down the platform, full of nervous energy. When the train came, he went into the car ahead of mine. I relaxed and started reading my book. At the next stop, he walked into my car. As the doors closed, I remembered where I had seen him. He was a beggar, and the four train was his regular prowling ground.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,PLEASE EXCUSE ME FOR BOTHERING YOU" he began, speaking in a tone that I had long since come to associate with subway beggars. It was a disappointed monotone, the sort of voice that an Assistant Principal uses. "I AM SORRY TO BOTHER YOU TODAY, BUT I NEED TO ASK FOR YOUR SUPPORT. AS YOU CAN SEE, I AM GETTING OVER AN INJURY..." The cane, which he had been swinging previously, now supported him as he lurched from one end of the train to the other, favoring his right foot. "I ALSO WAS RECENTLY RELEASED FROM PRISON. I AM NOT HURTING ANYBODY OR COMMITTING ANY CRIMES, BUT I NEED SOME MONEY TO GET BACK ON MY FEET..."
We had all seen him on the platform. At this time of night, there were only about twenty people in the car, and about half of them got on Kingsbridge. We'd all watched him prowling around at Kingsbridge. We all knew that he could walk perfectly well. We all knew that this wasn't begging as much as it was a threat.
At this point, the train pulled into a station and he positioned himself in the middle of the doorway, shoulders broad, facing into the train and daring passengers to squeeze past him. After the train started moving again, he continued his spiel. I zoned him out, and tried to lose myself in my book, although I kept one eye alert as he wandered back and forth in the car, yelling at his fellow passengers, demanding money. Like everybody else, I kept my eyes off his face. I looked at my book, or the windows of the car, the ads, the ceiling, anywhere but this guy. I didn't want to look him in the eye. It's not that I was afraid of feeling pity, or didn't want to see the face of need. To put it simply, this guy gave me the creeps, and I was afraid that, if I looked him in the eye, I'd end up getting in a fight.
I have a name for this one: the Fighting Irishman. He's like an angry, psychotic little James Cagney, and his begging patter has more than a little threat in it. He's a healthy kid, well-muscled and well-fed, with a recent haircut and clean clothes. He seems to enjoy working the cars. Our silence, our refusal to look him in the eye, fuels him. He's not a beggar; he's a minister. He's John Edwards, prowling around his moving pulpit, exhorting his unwilling, weak congregation. He knows he's got us, at least until the train pulls into the station. He glares around the car, letting us know that a buck or two will keep him from going back to the streets, where might just meet him down a darkened alley. Sooner or later, we're going to cough up the dough...
On a long four ride, I can usually count on seeing the Fighting Irishman a couple of times. He moves up and down from car to car, switching at stations or going through the doors at the end while the train hurtles down the track. One day, when I was in the second to last car, he hit us up once, disappeared for two stops, and came back again. Each time, he went through the same spiel, acting as if he hadn't bugged us just a few minutes earlier. As if we were total strangers, a fresh audience for his routine.
I don't give the Fighting Irishman any money. I'll sometimes give out a little change, but I'm pretty particular, and the aggressive, in-your-face beggars don't get any of my cash. The Irishman's patter is familiar, because I hear it a few times a week. I've heard it from dozens of beggars, with surprisingly few variations. It's as if they're all working from the same script, and I sometimes feel like its an audition. Sometimes there will be a sick mother at home, and sometimes there will be a few kids thrown into the mix, but most of the time it's a simple, veiled threat: I'm an ex con with an injury. I can't work, and I'm trying to stay off the streets. Give me your money now or give me your money later, one way or another, you're going to give me your money...