It was about nine on a weeknight.
“You got a dollar, man? Just trying to get home.”
“Sorry, no cash.”
“Oh come on man, just a dollar.”
“No, I’m serious, I would give you a dollar, I just don’t have one.”
He didn’t seem to hear me.
“I really don’t have any cash. I give all the time, it’s a problem.”“What?”
When I moved to NYC, more than a few veterans told me not to bother. There were just too many, they said. Veterans of living in the city, that is, not actual veterans; the actual veterans were usually members of the too many. I scoffed at the city veterans, thinking I would buy a meal and a drink for every person in need that crossed my commute.
They were right. There are too many.
I started out with basic practicality. Actual veterans always get what I can conveniently dig out of my jeans: they promised to die on command, and if we let them retire without making that mortal request, we treat their health insurance like a begrudging favor to a needy friend. After veterans, it’s number of people asking for money divided by net daily walking-around money after expenses. There’s a lower bound, of course; giving a penny to someone asking for money is tantamount to spitting in their face. An uncounted amount of pocket change is better, and a paper bill of any denomination secures sufficient gratitude in all situations.
But you don’t always have a dollar or sufficient change handy, and there are still too many. I handed out my dollars based on my mood, my income of the day, and whether they had a new guitar, because seriously? You’re begging for money in Manhattan with a guitar that smells like two weeks’ pay at McDonalds? You fucking hippy freeloader, go back to a Portland, I don’t care which. A subway show of old men doing a four-part harmony got twenty bucks, and I got a handshake and a nod in return. I deemed the first “Showtime!” show worth ten bucks, because I’d never seen them before and they weren’t irritating yet.
I got to work around 9:20, and the first email I opened was from the CEO. It said, “I’m concerned about your commitment to arriving before 9:15. Do we need to talk about this?” Even today, my contempt for this particular employer knows no bounds, but that day was a day I was still working for him, and reading that email was the experience that made me not care. Not immediately: I stormed out of the office to get the cup of coffee I had forsaken to get to work before 9:30, and, once the sweet sip of burnt Pike Place joined the first drag off a Camel Light, I realized I didn’t care. I didn’t care if my sociopathic boss lived or died, I didn’t care about my job, I didn’t care where I would be the next day, and I quickly committed to not doing anything for the remainder of my employment. I felt freer at that moment than any other moment in my life.
Walking on this freedom sunshine in April, I passed a man with no shoes and not much else, wearing a cardboard sign around his neck that read “PLEASE FOR JESUS.” I was wearing a three-hundred-dollar coat I picked up in Sicily. I walked past him, feeling amazing, then wanted to top off that amazing, so I walked back and put my coat on his shoulders. He said, “I’m fine, I’m fine! I don’t need it! I don’t want it!” I left the coat and walked away. Because nothing was going to bring me down from realizing I didn’t need my job.
Once a homeless man stopped me and my date and, before making his plea, asked us our names and how long we’d been going out. He improvised a two-minute jazz ballad on the spot. That got him ten bucks and two packs of cigarettes. I don’t remember why I had so many cigarettes on me.
Entertain me, homeless people. Earn my financial gratitude. Dance for me, and keep it fresh, because I’ve seen most of it before.
Also stay out of my way. That’s the one deal breaker: being in my way. In Greenwich Village, a man used to hold the door open for anyone going into a Citibank near my work. “Good day sir/ma’am, would appreciate anything you can spare, God bless you.” He held the door open again on everybody’s way out, showing a small and cheerful smile even while watching the tightened shoulders and downcast eyes that meant no tip for him. I probably gave him ten dollars over the few times I saw him, because I approved of his game. Honorable in intent, executed with hope and no visible judgement.
Lately, there’s been a guy at the East Broadway stop. He hangs out on the elbow of the stairs, and it’s one of those stairways that goes narrow to broad at the next corner so everyone’s reorganizing their flight paths, and just as they do, this guy says “Good day sir/ma’am, would appreciate anything you could spare, God bless you,” and FUCK THAT GUY that’s just another thing I have to navigate around at ten in the morning or whenever I wake up.
There are so many. They’re like the window cleaning edifices that pop up and down on every street providing places to smoke when it’s raining, except the homeless don’t provide anything and they’re under the scaffolding, making me feel guilty even when they’re not asking for anything. They’re scenery in this vibrant city, adding character, and choices for people whose choices expand like gas into their tax brackets, because they have income that registers as a tax bracket.
A small terror of drunken twenty-somethings stumble out of a bar. Two of the girls almost collide with an old man passing by.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, having done nothing. “Can you spare a few cents?”
One of the girls wheels around, fishing cash out of her purse. “Here… here’s… forty dollars! You get a meal and a bed for the night.”
The man takes the money, stunned.
“Thank you. Thank you.”
The girls start waving their fingers in his face.
“Don’t spend it on booze! Don’t you dare spend it on vodka or whatever, you spend that on food and shelter, got it? Got it?”
The man is nodding furiously. He still has the bills in his hand, as if he’s wondering if it’s okay to put them in his pocket.
“Thank you. God bless you.”
“Yeah, yeah, no booze! Remember no booze!”
The girls stumble away. I hate them. I want to walk over and give another hundred dollars to the man and tell him to spend it on whatever he damn well wants. As if a fifty-year-old homeless man lacks the life experience to make a decision that will get him through the night by whatever means. I want to make a point about showing people common respect whatever the income difference. To spend a hundred dollars to use him to hurt them.
I do nothing.
I hear we have to be careful, because we might get scammed. I know I was scammed at least once: he offered me his keys and wallet as collateral and pointed to a car and said he just needed a few dollars for gas to get his wife and kids home. It’s a scam I’ve hit more than once, and I never take the stolen keys and wallet. I give the few dollars because I don’t want to deal with it. Then I ignore a dozen homeless people just holding a sign, because I don’t have to pay attention to them the way I have to pay attention to someone running a transparent con. Be they thief or entertainer, the most pleasing desperate person gets my cash first. Rarely the humble. Never the silent. They just aren’t getting my attention.
There is an unspoken conviction that the poor are required to debase themselves in front of us. It is their responsibility to catch our eyes and improve our day somehow. Having nothing else worth our time and money, they must pay in dignity for the chance to receive our sympathy and loose change, because how else will we measure the goodness of our charity?
“It’s a problem,” I repeat, trying to communicate that I’m such a good person it impacts my budget.
But we’ve reached the point of total misunderstanding. He gives an exasperated sigh.
“Man, why don’t you just SAY that.”
“Dude, I really don’t have any cash!”
But it’s too late. He can’t hear me anymore. He’s pissed, I’m pissed, all over words lost to background noise.
I had twenty bucks in my pocket. Small bills.