You begin to recognize them the moment they board. “Half-assed Rhymes” I say to myself as soon as I spot the makeshift tambourine, and like a bell going off to confirm my answer, Half-assed Rhymes sits on the floor of the A train and launches into her what-you-may-call song. “It ain’t no joke/For real, I’m broke” *clickety thud clickety thud clickety thud*.  They become familiar, and to some extent, you file them away.  NYC is an endless parade of requests for help.

Occasionally I wish people would just say “please give me money” and leave it at that*–not because of the intrusion, entirely–though on a bad day, I do catch myself prioritizing my peace of mind against someone else’s hunger.  No, but I hate that my differential reaction has been allowed in, and that it’s been hung on a matter of shallow aesthetics. How far am I from giving money to the cute homeless person, for fuck’s sake. I hate that I’ve been asked to do triage.

So then, do I give money to mariachis and not the guy singing “Lean on Me” in the full flower of microtonality? I do. I can’t give to everyone. I have to base my choice on something or not give at all, and what it ends up coming down to, absent any means of assessing need, and given instead one thing to react to, is: well, I like mariachi music.  Makes me think of Austin and the subway is sometimes when I need Austin most.

There is, on the other hand,  an impulse to suss out who really needs a hand, and it’s independent of one’s stated, rationally held notions that need is not a failing. It may be just as bankrupt as giving to the best performer, because need can’t be sized up that easily.  And on a bad day, assessment can turn into skepticism with an edge of animus.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please excuse the interruption. I’m not out here selling candy for no basketball team. I’m just trying to earn a little money to keep off the streets and stay out of trouble.”

My reactions are
1) how did this speech get so standardized that I know it by heart, and
2) this feels like subtle blackmail.  i’m supposed to keep you off the streets with my dollar fifty?

I feel betrayed by my reactions, quietly at war with my ideals.

Recently it was the spiel about how money was fine but so was a sandwich or a bottle of water. This usually starts with an account of being recently out of Rikers and staying in a shelter and maybe being HIV+ and maybe having a family to feed. These things may be true.  I see people on their way off Rikers and it’s not like there’s a limo waiting to take them to the Ritz.  They get a two-ride Metrocard and, if they’re lucky, the shit they had on them when they were arrested.

But, looking at my reflection in the window and seeing the faint outline of some objectivist bully, I found myself thinking “I’m four cars up and he came in from the back and I’m not convinced nobody has given him a sandwich yet.”

I don’t want to be the guy who thinks that.  Sometimes I give in and allow my worst thoughts and then maybe like in meditation, sit with them a minute calmly before blowing them away. There’s not much ice between my unconscious and the rest of me, and my unacceptable thoughts are always with me.  It’s a way of not acting them out. And I’d rather be an asshole in thought than in action.

*In fact when they just walk through shaking a cup, I rarely give, and I notice this to be true of others.  I guess this is what motivates the impulse to market one’s need.

11 responses to “Broke”

  1. AWB says:

    I feel fairly comfortable with my general position that giving money to people on the subway is counterproductive for actual social justice. Yes, I know this smacks of the worst kind of extremist left-wingism, which is not dissimilar from your shadow-libertarian self. But (a) I make about $20,000 a year. It’s more than I used to make, but it’s still shit. And (b) it’s all the all the all the time.

    So now I only give to Guitaro 5000, because that guy is GREAT.

  2. FPS says:

    I can’t make up my mind on whether I agree about conterproductive/social justice. But I sure do love a mariachi!

    And no, when I had just moved here and made only enough to squeak by on, I didn’t give at all. There was an actual moment when I said “wait, this is a decision I can now make, because I’m not worried about every dollar anymore.” And even now, I just give once in a while, and I still get this “I gave at the office” feeling sometimes, i.e. go ask someone who really has lots of money and isn’t at least sorta trying to help poor people 9-5.

  3. k-sky says:

    I subscribe broadly to AWB’s it’s-counterproductive theory, but I’ve been wondering if there is serious philosophical consideration of what giving in public entails. How is it counterproductive? What does it do for the giver? What kinds of people make what kinds of decisions? How does it contribute to overall better or worse feelings for givers, receivers, lookers-on?

    In L.A. the experience is at freeway off-ramps.

  4. Jeremy says:

    In LA, the experience is also downtown, where I live, and where there are more homeless people than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. But the homelessness downtown seems different to me–more drug-addicted, more clinically insane. I always wonder whether my dollar is going to alcohol or drugs or what? But this seems more like a justification for when I do not give money–which is, of course, most of the time. And then I wonder about the elaborate ways that we/I justify not giving money to clearly needy people. When walking around downtown, I am asked for money about every 21.3 steps, and the same justifications run through my head each time. (By the way, very few askers actually have a schtick or a spiel, beyond stumbling around, asking every single person who passes for some change.) I’ve given $ to one of the more prominent homeless shelters downtown, and that generally assuages my guilt for not giving to individuals. But of course even that donation seems like not so much a gift out of the goodness of my heart as another way to fortify my daily justifications…

  5. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I think giving money to a homeless shelter is a great thing to do and you shouldn’t feel like you have to examine your motivations so much.

    Here’s my thing about the idea of counterproductivity, having thought about it a little: it is probably counterproductive to give change to panhandlers, but if people are actually starving I don’t know if it makes sense to make them continue to do so as fuel for as-yet hypothetical social change. It does little for them and the benefit to the poor of the future is not something I feel certain about.

  6. F. P. Smearcase says:

    “Examine” should maybe read “doubt.” Examining one’s motivations is fine. But give yourself a break: you contributed to someone having a roof to sleep under.

  7. Tim says:

    Man, how I hate sitting on a freeway off-ramp when someone is going from car to car asking for money. I feel so awful for the people who do this, who sit and stand there all day long, breathing in the fumes and dust, waiting for the light to change to red to move down the lines of cars, drifting slowly out of traffic when the light turns green and the cars begin to move again. I feel so guilty about sitting in my car, burning fuel on my way to do whatever somewhat privileged thing I’m going to do at the end of my journey — go to a show, eat dinner out, sleep in a warm bed, etc. — while someone tries to get my attention to plead for a little bit of cash.

    Generally, I keep my eyes forward, trained on the light, hoping it will go green before the person gets to my car. It’s a very strange relationship, one person trying desperately to get the other’s attention, the second party trying desperately not to give that attention. I feel such shame in not acknowledging them. It feels even worse than just not giving money, but I find it very difficult to look someone in the eyes and say no.

  8. KS says:

    This post and discussion thread are so thought provoking.

    I have a moral dilemma about this issue as well. A few times when I’ve been asked for “a little money to help out with food for my kids/bus fare” or whatever, I have actually been able to say (sometimes dishonestly, I will admit) that I don’t have any money on me but I do have an apple/granola bar/bagel that I would be happy to give them. Generally this offer is at first questioned, then gratefully accepted. After a few “ums” and “uhs” the asker will say, “Yeah, okay, that would be GREAT. Thank you!” Maybe it wasn’t actually food they were intending to spend the money on, but then they realize they are in fact hungry and do need food to sustain themselves while they hit up other people for cash.

    I feel guilty that I would rather give someone a Clif Bar or a huge organic apple, either of which costs more than a dollar, than give someone a dollar. What right do I have to decide how someone spends h/ir money? Does the fact that I give it empower me with that decision? On the other hand, there’s the micro vs macro impact of giving handouts, and the balance between helping someone in the moment while contributing to countless systemic problems. Like Tim, I tend to just hope they won’t get around to asking me before I am forced to confront my ambivalence.

  9. FPS says:

    Well KS and that’s another thing: there is some element of “is this going for food?” that people tend to ask, with greater or lesser impact on their decision of whether to give it. A lot of people decide not to give because they’re afraid their money will go for booze, and other people give freely knowing that’s where it may well go. I saw an extreme of this once: a guy said “I won’t give you a dollar but I’ll take you to an AA meeting with me.” Well-intentioned but off-puttingly paternalistic. This hesitation is replicated on a larger scale when people talk about public assistance. I think giving food addresses the same misgivings, but whatever–it remains an act of kindness to give someone food. You can’t really be faulted for it, no matter the underlying ideology.

    And then there are the people who seek to subvert this fear who have a sign that says “need money for beer.”

  10. Anonymous Vixen says:

    Marvelous post!

    Whenever I come in contact with a homeless person, I always remind myself of George. George was the local bum who decided to voluntarily pursue a life of homelessness because he did not want to give the government a part of his wages. Not because he lost his possessions, house, or job, but because he did not want to pay his taxes. As a hard-working, taxpaying citizen how is that supposed to make me feel?

    I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but how can I when I know that 95% of the time they’re just going to turn around and spend my money on a temporary fix. If a homeless person really wanted my help then why does he/she have to ask for money? Why can’t it be a blanket for the cold, or a pair of shoes to keep his/her feet protected? I’d be much more willing to help if I knew my money’s getting used for a practical reason.
    Here’s to you George… thanks for keeping my cynicism burning strong.

    P.S.: I loved that you used the term “microtonality” instead of saying he was flat/sharp. You’re after a musician’s heart!

  11. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Srsly it was like a Harry Partch concert up in there.

    Ok but as nice as it is to be complimented on the post, I want to point out that the point of it is a little different, it seems to me, than what you took from it. The point, such as it is, is that this cynicism is something we should (to use some annoyingly flabby social work language) sit with and unpack and, by and large, try not to be motivated by.

    Without knowing much of his story, George sounds like all was not right with him. Not even tea-baggers opt for the seriously lousy life of homelessness. I think you only do that if you’re nuts. As a hard-working, tax-paying citizen, that could make you feel all kinds of ways. Mine would be some trajectory through pity, skepticism, self-recrimination, and hopefully in the end, resignation to the idea that helping people means occasionally helping people who probably could do for themselves.

    It’s a mess, but it beats putting all our energy into determining who REALLY deserves our help. That doesn’t work too well and it kills the soul.