Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Beggars of New York

[I wrote this essay for my blog, but I thought I'd copy it to here for those of you who don't read OpenSalon.]

I moved to New York ten years ago with my youngest daughter A.C., who was then fifteen, thinking if we could make it here, we could make it anywhere. Though we come from a long line of diffident Southern Belles, we bravely put on the armor of enterprise and plunged into the raging current that is big city life.

We had been in New York City before under the protective wing of a talent agency (showbiz tryout stuff), but had never done anything then so nitty-gritty as ride the subway. We saw that it wasn’t that bad and learned to navigate nicely, though the NYC subway admittedly is a mighty, mighty strange place. I made A.C. interpret the maps and signs while I was with her, and she soon picked it up and was able to travel on her own. Not that the whole thing wasn’t a culture shock. Venturing off the tourist track, we saw a good deal more of the peculiar and astounding character of NYC than we were prepared for.

I remember particularly walking down Sixth Avenue, when A.C. suddenly sidled close up to me and said in a shocked voice, “Mommy, that lady is wearing garbage bags!” Sure enough, sitting on the sidewalk up against the side of a building in the shade was a withered woman clad in a couple of black plastic garbage bag knotted together. Despite what I had heard for years about the plight of The Homeless, this was the first time I was right up against it. It was an eye-opener.

We took to carrying change in our pockets to give to the beggars who asked, and for the street and subway performers who worked for the money (some harder than others). We soon learned to stop being afraid of them. One day A.C. confessed she was worried about giving money (however little) to people who might use it for alcohol and drugs, or for people who were only pretending they were hard up.

My response to her was that it wasn’t our job to determine those things. Our job was to give away our excess money to people who asked for it, not so much for their benefit as for our own. I don’t actually believe that the love of money is the number one root of all evil, but it’s got to be right far up there. I told A.C. that it was simply letting the coins fall from our hands that was the point. That seemed to make sense to her.

That being said, I have looked the other way lots of times. I don’t as a rule give money to people riding the subway, because I don’t want to encourage them to be lawbreakers. Twice I gave money to performers on the train because I really enjoyed their work, one a group of South American Indian guitar players and singers, and the other an outgoing group of drummers. (Usually the drummers annoy the hell out of me, but these guys were really entertaining and not too loud. I even took a video of them with my Treo.)

I’m used to the beggars by now, and truth be told, they do get a little tiresome after a while. As time went on I got to where I would just give all the change in my pocket to whoever asked first, and the rest of them were out of luck that day.

Once around Christmastime a rather belligerent guy came up to me at the 125th Street station where I was waiting for the A train, and asked me if I would give him twenty dollars. He wasn’t very nice about it, and I didn’t have it to spare, so I said, “No.” He went away not bothering to hide his disgust. I wonder if he ever got it.


Rarely do I give very much money, only spare change or a dollar at most. I’m not an even half-way rich person. Once for several months, I was pretty well off, or thought that I was. One snowy day in that auspicious time, I was walking not two blocks from Fifth Avenue where the St. Patrick’s Day Parade was winding down. I had just passed several pipers in full regalia coming down the sidewalk, when I noticed huddled against the railing of St. Ignatius Loyola Church was a family, a short sweet-faced woman with a young boy, a small teen-age girl and a baby in a stroller protected with a plastic cover—all very decently dressed and presentable—and they looked to be miserably cold.

The woman reached out to me and began to plead for help. They had just been evicted from their apartment in Queens because her husband had lost his job. She didn’t want to take the children to the shelter because it was so dangerous and horrible there—she began to cry. She had just come from the 92nd Street Y, where she was told they could all be housed for the night with meals for $93, but they didn’t have enough money. I chewed my lip, and finally I gave her $20, which was pretty much all I had on me. Then she and the girl both still pleaded for further help; they acted as though I were the only person that had paid them any heed and were reluctant to part with me. I told them I was out of cash and out of time almost; I had somewhere to be. Then because they looked so distressed and were sobbing, I told them to stay there, I would be right back. I ran to an ATM, drew out some cash, ran back to them and gave her $100. I figured that would be enough for them for one night at least. I told them not to cry any more that day.

That’s the most I’ve ever given anybody. I worried about it, though, like my daughter had before: “What if they were con artists?” I talked myself down by reasoning that if they had that kind of Oscar-level talent, they wouldn’t be out on the street. And if they were scammers, they did such a creative and first-class job that they deserved the money. What a way to make a living, though, if so. I guess I always feel that if someone is so desperate that, for whatever crazy reason, they come up to people on the street asking for change, then they probably need it in some sense. I try not to judge; I just let the coins go.


There is this division in the population of people in NYC who ask you for your money: on one side is the group I classify as real beggars, because they don’t give anything in return, and on the other side are workers—performers of some kind. There’s also a gray area where it’s hard to say which they are.

Some of the beggars hardly beg at all; like the pitiful garbage bag lady, they lie or sit listlessly with a handwritten sign: “Please Help.” Others are the “brother can you spare a dime” (or a twenty) sort. Then there are those who make an effort at quid pro quo, like the elderly man who hunkered down at the subway tunnel at 175th, playing his boombox for the edification of passersby.

The George Washington Bridge subway station at 175th has a longish pedestrian tunnel from the train to the terminal, and it is a popular site for those hitting up the crowd with varying degrees of success. These denizens encompass a wide range of functioning—from the poor guy who generally just sleeps, covered by blankets and cardboard (out of sight of the booth) with a battered paper cup sitting out for any coins that might fall his way—to the gray-bearded saxophone player—everybody calls him “Sax”—who is so well-known he’s had his picture in The New York Times playing in the subway tunnel, sitting on his milk crate, always in sunglasses, skinny legs crossed. Sax is a fabulous musician, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a decent amount sitting there. You wouldn’t believe how long he can hold a note. I sometimes think he must have a playing job somewhere and that he just fills up the rest of his time making some on the side off the commuters. Probably not, though.

Then there are those in between, a well-meaning elderly singer-guitarist (also with sunglasses) with only one volume (loud), one chord and only two sentences to his lyrics: “Oh yeah, it’s all right. It’s gonna be all right,” he wails.

One of the stand-outs of the in-betweeners is a young man who calls out to commuters in a mellifluous voice, giving them compliments and blessings as they pass (“Beautiful sister…how lovely you look…have a wonderful morning”) only occasionally asking very specifically for “a quarter, if you have it…” Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him for quite a while. I wonder if he’s okay.

Several years ago a thin, pleasant-looking, spectacled black man appeared, always sitting on a crate just above the stairs coming out of the platform. “Can anyone help me out?” was his line. He became the person who benefited from my “first asker” policy more often than not. I would see him, and I would empty out my pocket in his palm. This happened so often that he began to greet me when I came up with “Hi, how are you?” and would wish me a good day. These social niceties eventually gave way to actual short conversations. The weather was bad, his glasses broke, no, he didn’t like the screeching from the platform emergency exit because people would go out that way even if they weren’t supposed to (my pet peeve), but he was more annoyed by having to listen to the same songs over and over by musicians further up the tunnel. He met my husband a good many times, was alarmed at my breaking my right hand last spring, always asks about my recovery (it’s been a good six months, with two surgeries, so there’s been plenty to talk about).

One particular day I asked him how he was, and he replied that it was a great day for him. He had given up a vice, he said, and he was awfully happy about that. I don’t know what he meant, and didn’t want to pry, but he did look awfully happy.


This is one of the most rewarding things about New York City. Really. Living in the middle of the so-called “heartland,” I never, that I can recall, came into contact with anybody remotely near the lowest level of the social strata. Now I almost literally bump into them every day. I see them on the subway. I sit next to immigrants of every skin color, as well as upscale types (also of every skin color) on their way to midtown offices or Wall Street. Languages—Spanish, German, French, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Polish, Czech, Dutch, and some others I haven’t been able to identify—flow constantly like the Tower of Babel. Everybody is mixed up with everybody. It’s an amazing, everyday scene. This kind of perspective is almost impossible to acquire if you live in “real” America.

I suppose it would be possible to hermetically seal oneself off from this broad spectrum of humanity in New York City if you rode around in limos and only frequented the Upper East Side and the Hamptons accompanied by bodyguards who protected you from anything untoward. (Does anybody think this would be a good idea?) My guess, though, is that even Donald Trump has had run-ins with the beggars of New York. And Mayor Bloomberg rides the Lexington Avenue subway.

Tough times are coming. I broke my rule just yesterday by giving money to a beggar on the subway, because I had a pocketful handy, and I guess I’m just extra worried about the economic crisis. Food pantries are running out of food, shelters are overflowing, charitable giving is down. I don’t know where they’re all going to go for help, this city’s poor, and their ranks are swelling.

Winter is coming. “Oh yeah, it’s all right. It’s gonna be all right,” the man sings. The coins drop, a few at a time.


Sbanfnyc said...

Thanks for the post!

I remember two experiences reading this. As a new social worker in the early 1990's I asked a friend why she gave to non-profits. She said "I want to give back. I have a desire to reach out to others and be of service to my community."

While running a Family Serving agency in the late 1990's I was searching for "outcomes" meaningful to a funder and asked staff and customers what was the definition of "Mental Health". The answer was 1) having a problem solving mind set and 2) being of service to others.

While we all have our priorities, we each choose how to distribute our resources when we desire. I give to the United Way or my church or a miriad of other organizations all well deserved.

No matter the recipent nor the research gone into to determine the "outcome" we all choose to whom we will give.

I am greatful as we as a nation come closer to Thanksgiving my wife has made her choice. Give to hopefully solve a problem and be of service to others.

Melissa said...

And YOU, ScottieDog, are a steely-eyed Mission Man.

POD said...

I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting over here. I hadn't read OpenSalon but saw your post on FB too.

We have lots of 'homeless' (aka structurally challenged) folk out here but also plenty of addicts. It's difficult to decide who to give extra money to. I often don't carry any change so the decision isn't so hard for me. I used to take money down town just for that give away -- though no longer.

One day, a woman came up to me asking for gas money? I offered to meet her at the gas station across the street. She was crying and said she'd follow but she never came over. The next night, she asked my niece who was with me the previous night, for gas money and my niece said, "You asked us last night!" and the woman said, "Aw, f-you!" and stomped off.

I have had more negative experiences like that in these past few years than finding that my handing out money does any real good other than instant gratification, and with that, who am I trying to gratify? I wish I felt different but I find myself becoming increasingly jaded about many of these people -- even the one guy who we saw one day get on the bus with his briefcase across town, heading for 'work' downtown when I knew his 'job' entailed standing in front of the local movie theater, asking for money from strangers.

I lost my job (was laid off) 6 months after my husband died. I felt invisible. I never became homeless because I'm not mentally ill (completely) and I am very stingy. I wanted to keep my house. I found two jobs and slowly worked at both to meet my debt. I couldn't imagine choosing another route.

Melissa said...

Hey Pod,

I'm quite sure I get "taken" every now and then. It's just my policy to give money away, and I wouldn't want to stop out of fear. I'm also a little too lazy to try to figure it all out.

My purpose in writing this isn't really to advocate so much as to describe. I find the whole situation interesting.

MizFit said...

happpppy birthday weekend!

what are the plans??

AC said...

Oh wow mommy, I remember the trash bag lady. You vividly brought back that memory and how i was SO unaccostomed to seeing that type of homelessness. What you told me about it not really being up to us how they use the money sticks with me. I think about it on a regular basis. Usually whenever i give my change away.

I don't give away to everyone, I usually just go with my gut. That's all we can do. I think it'd be worse to occasionally snub the needy than to occasionally get scammed. There's a really nice homeless man at the subway station by my yoga studio who usually reaps the benefits of my being blissfully happy on my way home from class.

Craig said...

thank you for this post. It's really thoughtful and inspired a post of my own on how I feel about these sorts of things.

You can find it here:

sorry, it's terribly long...

There is one thing, though, in all that rambling which I forgot to mention... In regards to your wondering about taking a limo, having body guards, living a life separate from all this... I'm afraid that most our politicians DO live lives like that. I wouldn't be surprised if George W. Bush has spent most of his life in exactly that sort of bubble. The disconnect from the suffering of the people will almost (almost) always be part and parcel of having a political class. Furthermore, the homeless don't have a voice. They don't have a vote... and most politicians who say they will "deal with issue" usually only wind up picking i tup and moving it somewhere else (usually with the tactics of blunt force... as in the case of the Giuliani administration).

Also, Don't fool yourself about Mayor Mike... he might ride the subway for a stop or two, but I hear that after that he gets off and rides in his motorcade. Bloomberg's failure to tend to the MTA will be one of the biggest taints overshadowing any sort of decent legacy he might leave behind.

Peace and cheers to you, keep up the lovely work (especially the cartoons which AC has been passing along to me. Fantastic)

-- A Friend of AC's

Craig said...

also of interest:

Melissa said...

Craig, Many thanks for the comment and for the link to your blog! Your post there is great! And this parasite thing blows my mind! Thanks for that too.