About 3 times a week, my ride on the subway is interrupted by a speech, sounding more or less like this:
Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. I hate to bother you but I am in a very bad place right now. I’m homeless, living on the streets, and I need your help .I’m a veteran of the gulf war. The government benefits are coming too slow. Any change or food would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
Then they walk around the train, holding out a basket, or bucket, or an inverted ball cap. Nearly everyone patently ignores this person. Their conversations come to a halt; their pale faces belying deep embarrassment. I am not above ignoring. I bury my face in a book or just stare at the floor, barely moving.
I had no idea these were a regular occurrence on New York City Subways; it never happened in all years I rode the T in Boston. The first few times it happened I was deeply disturbed. On the street, beggars can be averted or sidestepped or otherwise easily ignored in the expanse of shuffling feet and wailing ambulance sirens.
But on the subway you are forced to make a decision, and that decision is usually: “no, I will not be giving you any money.” You rationalize the same way everyone always does: they’re going to just use it on booze and drugs, or they're not really a veteran. And you're probably right. But that doesn’t stop the guilt, at least not for me. On a dense and dirty subway car, with no easy exit, the guilt percolates, like a slowly baking turkey.
The suitably ragged, usually toothless individual will be lucky to get one person to unload a few rogue nickels and dimes into their filthy Yankees hat. They are never rude, never intrusive beyond their initial speech. Just defeated. They shuffle past the denizens of apathetic commuters and out at the next stop, their identities never considered.
The homeless aren’t the only group who employ this tactic. Of more consternation is the starving artist, typically a musician, who will step on the train and give a similar spiel, but then proceed to play some maddening solo on a violin, or flute, or no-shit, a trumpet. These people have all the shame of begging but inspire none of the empathy. They haven’t earned it, or perhaps more importantly, they do not appear to have earned it. They are annoying, and their gall is appalling. There is no reason why they can’t set up legitimate shop at a corner of any subway station, and eek out their existence like any decent street performer. These people are not desperate, not defeated, just self-important. They have egos large enough to believe that people want to be forced to hear a trumpet solo on their way home from work, where they otherwise might be reading, conversing, or sleeping. They do the walk of shame after their performance as well, going to each person with some-sort of money-grubbing receptacle in hand. I wouldn’t give this person spare change if I were hemorrhaging coins from every orifice on my body.
You would think as somewhat of a poor artist myself (the artist part is certainly debatable) I would identify. But I don’t. Art is a mutual experience. It is equal parts sender and receiver. If the receiver is held hostage by the sender, forced to receive, the dichotomy is clearly perverted. I wouldn’t assume that random strangers want to hear jokes about my sex-life on the subway. I think the same goes for violin solos, no matter how beautiful.
A few days ago I was riding the subway late at night. The door opened, and a man with no legs pulled himself through with his arms. His torn, mud-soaked jeans followed limp behind him. He pushed the bottom half of a milk carton in front of him. The man didn’t say a word; he just pulled himself down the car. The subway was silent as people tried desperately not look. No one had any idea how to react but most put change in the carton. Any sort of justification not too would be wrong. Anything a man with no legs would like to spend his money on seemed just fine with us.
I had no money. I just stood their silently as he made his way passed my feet, his face looking more weathered then his pants.
A subway is a place where strangers sit within inches of each other but never engage one another, as any attempt would make you seem strange, or more likely, dangerous. Despite this, a group of people skip right over the formalities and go straight to begging for money, something I’m uncomfortable doing to my mother. How desperate they must be; how sad it all is.