Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/11/2009

Now for something completely maudlin: This is not the anti-welfare rant you think!

The (obvious) Green Line

Disclaimer: Don’t ask me why this is what I’m writing about today. I don’t have a clue. 

Living in Boston 20 years or so ago, a friend of mine took the T Green Line out toward Boston College for some reason. When he left the train, he stumbled over a woman asking for money. I’m not being unkind to say we all know the type: dirty, pathetic-looking, missing teeth, dressed in rags, smelly, hoping he’d think she was at the lowest point we would think anyone could fall to. She was (of course) asking for money. My friend gave her some piddling amount. 

The next day, he had to return (he was most likely painting a mural in Brookline), and the vignette repeated. It happened several times. This is not surprising—all cities have “beggars” who position themselves at the same place every day. It seems there’s an unwritten code among panhandlers about “territory.” 

OK. The story gets more complicated than either my friend or I wanted it to be. A couple of weeks later, he was on the Green Line downtown and realized the “beggar woman” (as he called her when he told the story) was sitting in front of him on the train. She was with a friend discussing how much money they had “made” that day. It was far more than my friend had ever (probably even to this day) made in one day. I don’t remember the amount, but it was significant. 

The two women decided it was time to exchange territories because they were getting too familiar where they were, and novelty would bring more income, at least for awhile. 

We’ve all heard the urban legend—we’ve all imagined (if not experienced) this commonplace of city life. Why should “those people” get jobs or do anything productive or useful when they can make a killing (non-taxed, of course) begging? It’s a business, an organized rip-off of responsible, hard-working, tax-paying citizens. 

Here in Dallas two or three men take turns standing at the traffic signal at the end of the freeway off-ramp I take when I come home from one of my jobs (got that? ONE of my jobs). You already know what they look like, and you are moderately perturbed about it, nodding, “Oh yes. I know. Bums! Cheats! Scam artists!” 

I know. And you know I know. See! That’s what’s wrong with the welfare state. And that’s the kind of leap of “after this therefore because of this” illogic we all make. It’s so easy. And we are SO righteous (not to say “self-righteous”). 

At all times, I carry in my wallet a $20 dollar bill tucked away so I can’t see it if I’m buying something. I pretend it’s not there. I’m too often tempted to spend it when I don’t have cash for a cup of coffee and don’t want to use my check card (remember, I have no “credit” cards). 

Yesterday I was buying gasoline. As I finished pumping, a wild looking street person walked toward my car. His hair and his beard were both grown out down to his middle—white, matted, dirty—and he was wearing at least two coats and a pair of what appeared to be wool suit pants held up with a rope. I didn’t look any closer than that. 

I closed my car door hoping to dissuade him. I didn’t. He stood by my window motioning. It was obvious he wanted me to put down my window. I debated for about two seconds and did so. “Help?” was all he said—obviously from the inflection of his voice, asking the question. He was, I would say, between thirty and seventy years old. How do you tell? 

I pulled out my wallet and found the folded $20 bill. I gave it to him. I know the expression of, “I don’t trust you; what the hell are you up to?” He looked the bill over, front and back, lowered his eyes, and said simply, “God.” “Merry Christmas,” I said, feeling like a fool, and drove off. 

I AM a fool.

Who in their right mind would do such an idiotic thing. The guy probably went off and bought a bottle of something with the money (oh, yeah? who says so). Why doesn’t he just get a job? Who is he to expect something from me when he’s not willing to pull his weight in society? Where are the agencies that are supposed to help him?

Thanksgiving week, I was at the neighborhood super market. The lot was so crowed I had to park ten feet from the street and the bus stop. A woman who was not completely disreputable or “that kind” of person got up from the bus stop bench. “I’m not very good at this. But do you have any spare change?” Out came the $20 bill. You would have thought I was the godmother, not just the fairy. She threw her arms around my neck. She wept. She didn’t have to say “Thank you.” 

I have a plethora of stories from the last two years. Maudlin. Stupid. Foolish. Maudlin. I know. My money has gone for stuff I wouldn’t approve of. But I also know it has helped impoverished, untouchables get a meal or a pack of cigarettes or a bus ride to a more lucrative corner, or—what do I care? I can only do the next right thing. The universe will take care of the result. 

This started about two years ago at a restaurant (one of those cheap—not exactly “fast food”—places where none of us wants to admit we eat) in Oakland. My waitress was an elderly Asian, too frail to be on her feet (a waitress can be fired for sitting down or not looking busy) for eight hours. The younger waitresses were riding her mercilessly. After my $6 breakfast, I left her a $20 tip. As I was getting into my car, she ran out and grabbed my arm. “Sir, you make mistake.” She held the $20 out to me. “No mistake. For you,” I mumbled. She cried—you can tell whether you’re dealing with a panhandler by the presence or near-presence of tears—threw her arms around my neck (I’ve gotten used to being touched by people I would not choose to touch me), and said, “Too generous, too generous.” 

At that moment, I decided if that’s all it takes to make me happy, $20 is little enough to spend. 

You see, I have no reason not to be living like the people who bring me so much joy. I’m a drunk (recovering for a long time, but still a drunk). I have epileptic seizures that send me into a la-la-land and sometimes make me want to check right out of here. And I live in this strange little (apparently Bipolar) world between tears and laughter, anger and appeasement, almost 24/7—such as has destroyed people far stronger than I am. 

Some profound, historical, famous or obscure passage from some great spiritual work should come to mind to end this. It doesn’t. I’m too selfish. I guess the best I can do is suggest that you can have an easy cheap thrill some time. 

Posting Norman Rockwell here seals the maudlin. But I like the picture. I’m grateful to those people who give me joy, and the old woman is the great-grandmother of the great love of my life.

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Responses

  1. You did the right thing. The reactions were genuine.
    I do it too sometimes but not often enough and I lack the courage to say, “Hey, let me buy your breakfast” but I did once take in a tramp, to our home for a few hours, fed him, let him have a bath(which he craved more than food) and sent him on the road with a packed lunch that would do dinner as well. Bizarrely, I trusted him.
    God bless you.

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  2. […] written several times about the $20 bill I keep folded and hidden in my wallet for the purpose of giving it to a […]

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