Monday, October 25, 2010

Another Subway Tale

red line, an hour or so before rush hour, so the train is nearly full, but comfortable. a beggar is walking around the car asking for money. he needs $25, he announces, and explains something about a permit he needs to get section 8 housing, but it costs $25, and he has to get it today, before the place closes in an hour. he's young, a boy, really,  and unkempt but not dirty. he sounds rambling, but seems neither drunk nor stoned.  still, i'm not so rich myself; i don't want to pay for someone else's booze or drugs. the same conversation i've had with myself for years,  now a bit sharper with the economic mess and a harder, crueler society. the political discourse these days, which once included at least reference to the poor, is now all about the problems of the middle class. even the liberals stick to the middle class as victims of big business and conservative greed.  the poor appear to have vanished, or to have failed to merit our concern.

so it's not quite as easy to dismiss a beggar as a drunk or drug addict.  maybe he is, maybe not.  you can't be sure what it is you're paying for.  i reach into my pocketbook for the inevitable compromise: one dollar.  not enough to get him where he says he needs to be, but also not enough to make me pissed for losing hard-earned money.

other passengers seem to be having the same interior discussions, because they too begin to search their wallets and pockets, and soon the kid has $10, $11, $12.....his desperate but subdued monologue continues, and a few more people contribute.  then the young man opposite me, who was the first to give a dollar, opens his wallet, looks at some bills for a moment, then hands them to the kid.  an elderly woman next to him sighs, says, 'i don't understand what you need, and i don't have much money, but i hope this helps,' and gives him two dollars.  later she says to me, 'i couldn't really afford it, but i have a grandson, and i hope someone would help him.'

the boy counts the bills, and is elated.  he has his $25.  he strews thank-yous  around our end of the train. then a woman who has been sitting a ways back, holds a dollar out to him.  he won't take it. 'thank you,' he says earnestly, 'but i don't need it.  i got the $25 now.' and leaves at the next stop,  murmuring 'i hope i get there before they close.'

i hope so too.


Ken Goldstein said...

There's always that discussion in the background of the 'deserving poor' versus the, what, 'undeserving?' The separating out of the (perceived) hardworking victims of circumstance against the (perceived) lazy ones.

How flush we're feeling at any given time moves that line between the two up the horizon.

karen lindsey said...

yes, how flush, how cheery, how compassionate. and how judgemental. shaw's wonderful character, mr doolittle, who proclaims himself proudly a member of the 'undeserving poor.'

but to be fair to all of us with our mixed-bag compassion, in the belly of the capitalist beast....when you have limited funds, as most of us do, you always do have to make limits on your spending. i don't know how desperately the smelly drunk needs his booze. but i choose, usually, not to pay for it. it will probably entail giving up something else that i'd have spent the money on, however minor, and i want to get my money's worth for my little sacrifices. i want to 'buy' that little pat i can give myself on the shoulder. those feelings, i suspect, govern most of our giving. i'm not sure it always boils down to the 'deserving' vs the 'undeserving'--or maybe it is, and the complexity lies in the unconscious subtitles we have for each category. perceived vulnerability can be a big part of it...