Friday, November 02, 2007

Beggars and Buskers, Musicians and Thieves, Part II

The New York Face

I had been here for a few days and was still feeling my way around. It was a sunny day, and I stepped out to do the laundry. I would later realize that this was a particularly dangerous time, as a laundry bag automatically translates into a pocketful of cash. As I was crossing Bainbridge, a black guy in a doo-rag started walking towards me. Catching my eye, he grinned widely.

"My man, my man, my man. How you doin'?" he asked, extending his right hand. I shook it and smiled back at him. I'm not a fool--I knew that the other shoe had yet to drop--but I was new to the neighborhood, and saw no need to make enemies. I smiled at him. "How YOU doing?"

His smile got a little wider. "My man, welcome. I'm sorry I wasn't here to welcome you earlier, but you know how it is." Wow, I thought, this guy is really putting it out there.

"Yeah, I know how it is. What's up?"

"Well, man, you see, my Moms needs an operation. She's waiting for some money to come in, and I need to help her out." I zoned him out as he wandered through his spiel, because I already knew what the last line was going to be: "You got any money I can borrow?"

Rich told me to expect this, but I thought he was kidding. He also told me that, if I gave money to one guy, I would be fair game for everyone. I had to nip it in the bud, and I had to do it with some style and class. No need to make enemies in the neighborhood.

"You know, I'd really like to give you some cash, but I don't gotta job right now, and I ain't gotta lotta money." I smiled at him. "Hey, man, you get me a job, and I'll help you out!"

He smiled back. "Hey, you honest. I like that." He thought for a moment, as if considering whether to pursue it further. He decided against it and shook my hand again, then walked away.

I have a hard time saying no to beggars. I've been really poor, and I know what it feels like when you can't afford food. I've had to take care of a kid, and I've had an untreated illness, and most of the cliches hit me pretty close to home. But there's simply too much--too much poverty, too much hunger, too much desperation. We're living pretty close to the wire, and can't even begin to fill the empty pit of need that surrounds us every day.

I like to help people. If I see tourists who look lost, I tend to ask where they're going, and then help them get there. I help ladies with strollers get up stairs and old men with walkers cross streets. I give up my seat on the subway whenever I see someone who looks more needy or tired than I am. Sometimes, it feels like I'm a walking nipple, out to nurture and help everyone.

Within the first few days of our life in the Bronx, it became apparent that Rich was right and I would have to build a shell around my natural tenderness. The sick mother guy was followed by a few more neighbors. I think it got out that I was a cheap bastard, so it's been about a month since somebody hit me up. The last one was a lady who caught me counting my quarters at the laundromat. Few things make you feel more like Ebenezer Scrooge than holding a pocketful of cold quarters while a lady tells you about her sick daughter. Still, I feel like passing out money on my street definitely counts as shitting where you eat.

In those first few weeks, I said "No" so many times that some of my neighbors must have wondered if it was the only word I knew. Sometimes I was polite about it and sometimes I was dismissive, but there were days where it seemed like everybody on the street had some need or another and had decided to ask me to help them through. I quickly saw why Rich warned me: as the token white guy on the street, I could very easily have become the official dispenser of wealth and aid.

I'm not a hardass, but I quickly realized that the endless need of these people did not automatically translate into my responsibility.

Saying no has become second nature, to the extent that the sound of an interrogative sentence almost automatically elicits a negative response. "Do you got money?" "No!" "Can you give me a quarter?" "NO!" "Do you want cake?" "NO...wait, could you repeat the question?"

This has come in handy on the subways where I have quickly adopted my New York face. If you want my dough, you're going to really need to work for it. My wife and I have set up a simple rule: if you make our lives more enjoyable or more interesting, we'll open our wallets. But if you're going to go the veiled threat route, keep moving. And if you're only claim to my money is the fact that you have a need, well my kid is going to need braces. I've gotta get some dental work done. My mother's dead, and my cat's kinda bitchy...

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  • Oh Gawd, I'd be the fully loaded breast, not just the nipple, ready to feed the whole block until I was empty. Shit. You have made hardening into an artform.

    Also, I like that you are willing to help when the presentation is positive.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 2, 2007 at 10:20 AM  

  • I need to count my blessings for living in such an affluent community. My favorite is when people try to ask me for money over the Internet.

    But I try not to get annoyed with people b/c for every panhandler making a solid lower-middle class living off fools, there are two more desperados. I am not normally scared of anyone on the street here but passed an older and larger beggar the other day. Fear washed over me when I saw his aggression and I knew it was definitely hunger.

    By Blogger M@, At November 2, 2007 at 2:58 PM  

  • Oh I like your style...get me a job and I'll help you out.


    By Anonymous Franki, At November 2, 2007 at 4:58 PM  

  • Pool-
    On the other hand, I've given out books to some of the neighborhood kids. I just tend to take getting conned a little personally...

    One of the lessons that I'm learning is the dividing line between good and dangerous, shy and threatening. When it comes to beggars, even the slightest hint of threatening is enough to turn me off. I just don't think fear and charity mix!

    Thanks! I think the biggy is trying to find a way to part company with minimal bad feelings. Especially when they live near me!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 2, 2007 at 9:29 PM  

  • I learned my lesson about giving away anything while I was living in NYC. It's a good place to learn real cynicism.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At November 3, 2007 at 12:01 AM  

  • Man I jingle when I walk from the loose change I carry in my messenger bag. I'm a soft touch can't help it unless you try to intimidate me then I just plead broke. When I was back in Egypt the beggars already knew my name and would promise to pray for me every

    By Blogger Mia, At November 3, 2007 at 1:16 AM  

  • this reminds me of the window washers in Italy (if they're still there...) they'd wait at the stoplights for a red light and then offer to wash your windshields. Many times, with women, they'd insist, not taking no for an answer and getting angry and sometimes violent if they didn't get paid.

    By Blogger Claudia, At November 3, 2007 at 9:47 AM  

  • You're slick - well handled.

    I heard a quote the other day that resonated because, like you, I like to help people out, knowing how difficult life can be;' If you're the sort of person who like to help people out, remember, you're a 'people', too.'


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 3, 2007 at 10:51 AM  

  • Spellbound-
    I'm trying to stop short of total cynicism. It's pretty hard!

    As far as I'm concerned, you get MASSIVE points from the way you handled that smartass girl at the bus stop. I am in total awe.

    I wouldn't even know how to handle that, as it seems like there's a whole other layer of intimidation that comes to the fore when a man threatens a woman. Ugh!

    At the end of the day, it's not all that hard, really--the simple fact of the matter is that I just don't have all that much money to spread around.

    But you raise a good point, and a little self-righteous anger might be exactly what I need to deal with some of these guys.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 3, 2007 at 11:37 AM  

  • You know, I too have a big heart...but my wallet stays closed. I look into their eyes and say NO. That's it. I don't owe them any excuses....No means get out of my face. If someone is hungry, I'd offer them food...most times they don't take it. Id buy coffee for one guy in the morning...and once when I didn't go to work, he got pissed at me for not being there with is well..too bad.
    Life goes on.
    You're really learning some big lessons here Crank and it sounds like you're doing ok with them.

    By Blogger Odat, At November 3, 2007 at 12:18 PM  

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