Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sweet Charity

Last Thursday, I was riding into work on a crowded subway car. A ragged man entered from the door at the end of the car, tapping a thick wooden cane, his head tilted back, sunglasses on his face. He wore a puffy, ripped leather jacket, a grimy white shirt, and stained black trousers.

He shouted his pitch: "Good Morning Everybody! I'm blind and homeless and need a place to stay tonight! Anything you can spare, even a penny, will be appreciated! God bless you!" He shook a paper cup, in which a few coins rattled.

As he made his way down the aisle, tapping his cane ahead of him, passengers moved out of their way but did not otherwise respond. He came closer to where I was seated, in the middle of the car. I was relaxed, my legs crossed, extending into the aisle, blocking his way. As he approached I braced for the smell, but there was none. He had washed recently.

Of course, I felt an urge to move my legs and let him pass, like everyone else, but I also felt an instinct not to move. So I didn't. His cane thumped my leg and then, as he made an effort to step over my feet, he tripped, stumbling.

He reached out with a hand to grab a pole, caught it in the crook of his elbow, and spun to his right. His foot lunged forward and he found his balance after stepping on a woman's shoe. Other passengers were jostled. He turned his blind face to me and said: "Excuse ME SIR!" and proferred me his cup. I demurred, and after a tense pause, he continued to shuffle his way down the aisle.

But now men's hands reached inside pockets, and women opened their purses. The jingle of his shaking cup grew noisier as people reached out to give. After each donation, he bowed slightly and said, "God Bless You".

The question I'm wondering now is, did I deserve a cut? I would have taken a "God Bless You" at least.

40 Thoughts:

Blogger brooklynmum said...

My question is, if he was blind how did he know you were a 'sir'?

Thursday, April 13, 2006 2:37:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Interesting question. I guess he probably assumed most assholes are male. Either that or he was a big faker!

Thursday, April 13, 2006 3:03:00 PM  
Blogger pookalu said...

maybe it was the "masculine feel" of your feet and legs as he was tripping over them? or women tend to be more considerate? (that was a joke)

Thursday, April 13, 2006 3:08:00 PM  
Blogger Medea22 said...

goodlookin brooklynmum...ya smarty pants you.

If he wasn't really blind then I do appreciate the extra effort he put forth by tripping,stumbling, grabbing and spinning. Showmanship counts for something you know. Buskers and blindmen alike would agree on that (me thinks!)

Pawl if you do a little jig and shake your tailfeather on the subway I promise you a plethora of God Bless Yous

Thursday, April 13, 2006 3:31:00 PM  
Blogger supercat said...

I vote for big faker.

Or maybe you were barefoot and your legs and ankles are exceedingly hairy?

I saw a man enter a subway car once, his body contorted, dragging his left leg. I was sitting at the end of the car. He gave his spiel to us, shaking and struggling to enunciate each word with dignity. Folks dropped their ducats into his paper cup.

Then I watched him exit. His whole body relaxed and sprang upright, morphing into a junkie shuffle. He made for the stairs, taking them two at a time.

What is sadder than the artless con?

Thursday, April 13, 2006 4:09:00 PM  
Blogger brooklynmum said...

The jaded New Yorker in me thinks he was probably a faker...then again, more than likely he's less fortunate than those he was 'performing' for so what's the harm?

Here's a dilemma, I regularly give change to an older man on my train - mainly because he looks very sweet and grandfatherly (although seemingly heathly otherwise) but some weeks I see him every day and feel enough is enough. 'I've given you a few dollars already this week, try another train for a while'. Believe it or not, I sometimes feel guilty if I don't give him change now that the expectation is that I will. How crazy is that?

Thursday, April 13, 2006 4:43:00 PM  
Blogger Zeppellina said...

To a certain extent, the hawkers actions, whether blind or not, were fairly predictable, in that he was working to a tried and tested set routine to make some money.
I`m more curious about your actions, Pawlr....!!

You had two choices, move out of the way, or block the way, and you chose the second....

I`m curious........

Thursday, April 13, 2006 5:55:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Zep - Lately I've been testing the fabric of reality by following my instincts, just to see what new patterns emerge. Sometimes it means not doing things I ordinarly "should" and sometimes it means doing things I ordinarily wouldn't.

I guess I never understood Camus' "The Stranger" in highschool but it makes a lot more sense to me now.

Friday, April 14, 2006 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Brooklynmum - Habits are hard to break, be they "good" or "bad".

Maybe you could work him into your budget, and put him on a project plan.

Explain to the old guy that you'll give him a set amount 1 day a week or each month but you want progress updates on how he's using your money. If you sense he's just blowing it on bad liquor, you can cut him off.

Friday, April 14, 2006 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Medea22 said...

once it leaves your hands it is his or her money. I don't want to support a habit ( though I support many)Yeah I make choices but since I am not in some parental role, when I part with money It ain't my biz to tell 'em how to spend it. Shit I don't even have that control as a taxpaying citizen - "Dear assholes, could you make sure that none of my tax dollars go to this fuckin' war. I'd like my little share to be spent on the exploring renewable energies..."Hearing people worry about where the bit of change they give to panhandlers actually goes leaves me flummoxed. BLOW IT ON BAD LIQUOR I SAY!

....but be prepared for the headache

Friday, April 14, 2006 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Zeppellina said...

Perfectly respectable answer, Pawlr.

I was just curious, as people do not usually step out of normal perameters, and when they do, their reasons are often quite interesting.

The fact that people gave money after the event appears to have been a definate reaction against what you had done, perhaps to disassociate themselves from the event, or perhaps show some empathy for someone who had been deliberately hampered in their journey, whether that person had originally merited sympathy or not.

However, be careful, that could have gone horribly wrong for you.
In my own hard fair
wee City, you would more than likely have been challenged by the hawker on your actions, and might not have been unscathed at the end of it.

But, you remained intact, which was good, and had an interesting cause and effect experiment.

What were your own thoughts on the actions of the other passengers?

Sunday, April 16, 2006 9:40:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Your question reminds me of another NYC subway event I witnessed on a train back in the late 80's. This was during the time of Bernard Goetz, so racial tensions were high, especially on the subway.

A white and black man enter an express train in the middle of a heated argument, and escalate it throughout the long ride. By the middle of the trip they are calling each other the worst racial slurs, and begin to challenge each other with physical violence. Passengers naturally recoil in fear. Then the men rush at each other, enraged, but at the moment they start wrestling, begin to sing, and start dancing instead! The song is an appropriate duet: Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory".

The reactions were strange, everyone was relieved, but some riders were upset to be messed with psychologically in that way. Others applauded. Then the duo passed the hat.

It didn't work that well as a money-getting scheme, but it was great street drama, taking the audience to the edge of fear and pulling back. Timely, too.

As for the blind man, I don't know for sure why the other passengers acted as they did - perhaps they saw that I shared a social class with them - the "fortunate". Witnessing my indifference, perhaps they absorbed the shame they expected I should feel - and so acted in order to recover their own legitimacy?

Thinking about it now, it would actually be a good scam for a pair of hucksters to work together - one dressed as a stockbroker doing the tripping and the other as a blind guy. Stretch the class-based oppositional drama for maximum effect. Just initiate the drama earlier in the walk down the aisle in order to collect the most profit.

Zeppelina, what city are you from?

Sunday, April 16, 2006 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger Zeppellina said...

Glasgow, in Scotland.

It`s a good wee City, has a hard personality, but is a friendly City too. It has a lot going for it, a good Arts, Theatre and Music community, lots of festivals, but it has it`s downsides too, like any other City.

We unfortunately recently got branded as being the `murder capital`, which was unfortunate.

I`ved lived here since 1978, and I`ve always felt safe here.

I`d just like to say that tourists always have a great time here, and are always welcomed by Glaswegians!!!

Sunday, April 16, 2006 1:36:00 PM  
Blogger Manola Blablablanik said...

When I used to walk up and down Lincoln Road to work, I'd encounter that other side of South Beach no one talks about -- the bums. There's this war vet missing half an arm who'd always ask me for $, even though I regularly gave him a dollar or two.

This is a tough one. Even fakers still are in skidrow mental space, don't you think?

Sunday, April 16, 2006 2:50:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...


Absolutely - no judgements, people do what they gotta do. I figure, if he can shake people down, more power to him!

I also will give to musicians - if they're good. Yesterday I gave $1 to this old guy who was playing the best jazz sax I had ever heard in the subway, great tone.


Shout-outs to Glasgow! I would love to visit sometime. Do you know the Scot Iain Banks, he is one of my favorite writers, sci-fi or otherwise. Also Belle & Sebastian of course, I don't know if they're from your wee city though. A friend of mine lived in Glasgow and loved it.

Monday, April 17, 2006 1:51:00 PM  
Blogger femme d'espoir said...

to those who extend a needy hand and ask for a bit of aid,

give what you can, for you know not, what roles their lives have played.

you seem rather interesting! i'll be back.

Monday, April 17, 2006 7:03:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Its true, I always give what I can. But what I "can" is the same as what I "want" - if I allow, for experiment's sake, natural self-interest to be the guiding instinct. Nature is a cruel mistress, after all.

Monday, April 17, 2006 10:43:00 PM  
Blogger Palmer said...

Reminds me of the time I asked a preacher man to pipe down on the E train into Manhattan one Sunday morning.

He began with the usual preacher man schtick and then asked us all to give. When we didn't respond, he began to berate us for our wicked indifference. I got tired of his tone and eventually stood up and said "Do you mind? I'm trying to read here?"

He proceeded to call me a white devil, a satan, the whole nine. Despite the urge to cower, repent, and sit down, I remained standing until we reached the next stop when he stepped off the train, still laying into me.

I sat back down and returned to the Sunday Times, heart pounding.

When I recounted this tale to friends they thought I was crazy to stand up and challenge him in a situation like that--who knows what he might have done!?! In retrospect, it might have been an undue risk. I just really took umbrage at the idea that not only was I being interrupted, I was being scolded for my indifference. Part of the social contract of the subways is that "blind" indifference should be respected.

In both this case and your example, the beggar/preacher/performer was not deferred to by a typical commuter. Though risky, it does take back the car for the peaceably indifferent--the silent masses of the daily commute.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger Medea22 said...

Palmer I've had several "do you mind..I am trying to read here" moments and stood up to a subway prosteletyzer (how the majiggy do you spell that). Trapped sermons leave me panicked. I mean there is a difference between singing gospel - Mahalia Jackson Eye on Sparrow or something of that ilk - or just spouting off some fear based drivel. YOu wanna call me a heathen and take my money as well. While still thoroughly annoying, if the person is clearly mentally ill ...I might leave it alone. if they are scaring small children I might come out with a " back off buddy".

Wednesday, April 19, 2006 4:52:00 PM  
Blogger iBegToDither said...

Ersatz indigents are one thing. But diverting my tax contributions to fund the sorrowful invasion of Iraq -- that's bloody vexing.

Thursday, April 20, 2006 4:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree- the people who gave the blind man money on the subway after he had tripped certainly absorbed your guilt (or lack of).

I'm really curious as to why you didn't move your legs/ feet though. You say that you were "following your instincts" but honestly, your lack of movement just seems cruel. If anyone else was passing by at that moment would you have moved out of the way? It seems like you would have. Sure, he made more money off your decision but imagine if he had fallen down and hurt himself or someone else...

Blind or not, destitute or not, invasive or not- I feel he deserves the common courtesy that you would extend to others and that you would want extended to yourself.

I live in the city as well and take the subway every day but I cannot fathom why you would let someone stumble over your feet and possibly hurt themselves for no good reason.

Saturday, April 22, 2006 2:07:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Its true, One Girl, instincts are often cruel. Cruelty is one of those great human tendencies that separate us from the animals. Except for cats - scientists say they're not really cruel, but I don't believe that.

One time, when I was six, I threw a small rock at my older brother's head while we were playing outside. It was a totally unprovoked act, because he was just standing calmly outside in the sun by our front door. He had done nothing to me whatsoever. Totally shocked, he ran over, bleeding through his hair, and shook me, asking "Why did you do that?" I didn't have an answer then, and I don't now, other than.. I just wanted to.

Morality has to be taught to us, because we have no instinct for it. Fear, however, is a strong disincentive for us to be cruel. If I didn't think I could get away with it, I probably would have moved my legs.

However, your assumption that I'm singling out the blind isn't true - since then I've kept my legs in place for many sighted people as well. I do move for pregnant women and children though. I'm not a total "monster", or should I say, "I'm not a total human". All experiments have their limits.

Monday, April 24, 2006 1:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you really think morality has to be taught to us? Now THAT would be an interesting experiment...

Monday, April 24, 2006 8:42:00 PM  
Blogger Palmer said...

yo pawl, does somebuddy need a hug?

i feel like i might need to go catch another blogger who's being good. all this attention for being naughty...

i do think there's a difference between ignoring a blind man and not moving a leg, thereby tripping due to indifference and intentionally sticking a leg out to trip him. not moving is callous, actively tripping is cruel (but somehow funnier).

you taking a sadistic jaunt? working the bad boy angle? godspeed.

just leave some time to party with the ewoks when you return to the light.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006 9:50:00 PM  
Blogger Medea22 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Medea22 said...

I am writing out a prescription for a proper spanking. A hug ain't gonna do it. If spanking doesn't remedy the issue we will have to resort to a week of boot licking. If conditions worsen a more severe treatment for the ailment will be needed.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Palmer - love Ewoks, they fluff me well. All that fur, yum. Almost as nice as beaver!

But if its a hug you want to give, be warned, I always gives more than I gets.

Medea22 - The U.N. dishes out reprimands all the time, but to no avail, it is a feeble enforcer--better for you to mind who holds the Crop.. with it, the power of my nationhood can flip even the sternest butch pretender to justice!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 1:47:00 PM  
Blogger Transformer said...

"Cruelty is one of those great human tendencies that separate us from the animals."

I don't know, Pawlr.

IMO cruelty is a form of self-interest or selfishness, and animals are full of this as they go about their day making sure they get food and don't get killed.

I think what seperates us is self-awareness, the ability to make choices, a capacity for compassion (which some people never realize) and to accept results of our actions.

Anyway, enjoying what I'm reading.

Monday, May 15, 2006 2:48:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Trans - welcome. Cruelty I think is more than just blind self-interestedness - it requires a higher level of intelligence and consciousness than, say, a shark ripping a seal apart or a male lion eating a female's young. Cruelty involves taking pleasure in the suffering of others, not just an organism inflicting it as part of their daily life.

My point being that our species' elevated level of consciousness gives us a wider range of pleasurable possibility than simply "love" or an appreciation of beauty.

Monday, May 15, 2006 11:23:00 PM  
Blogger Transformer said...

Isn't the desire for pleasure a form of self-interest?

From my POV, all beings want to be happy and free from suffering, whether they're self-aware or not. The methods of seeking may vary across species, but the final end result is the same. The desire is temporarilly (sp?) sated until it returns, and almost all of us continue this cylcle in some way until we die.

That's why I think what really distinguishes us is our choices and the capacity for compassion towards others and they're own suffering. If you look around, you'll see that anger, selfishness, and cruelty are pretty common, from people arguing over a subway seat to international unrest, and it all feeds and perpetuates itself.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006 9:20:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Cruelty can be very subjective as well.

Yesterday on a street in Saigon, I watched a man cycle by towing a single cage within which ten dogs were crushed together. Their arms and legs were sticking out of the wire mesh and they were stacked on top of each other like cordwood. These animals were clearly destined to become human victuals by that evening.

So is this cruelty? -- I mean, their keeper was probably not relishing in their suffering. Rather, they were stacked as such because it was just an affordable way to take them from point A to B. But what do you think?

Friday, May 19, 2006 4:58:00 AM  
Blogger Transformer said...

I think we can both see how some people would see what you've described as cruel. However, It appears to me as further evidence of the nature of suffering in our world. We don't know really how that guy felt. He may see the dogs simply as food and income. He may be aware they, like him are living beings, but he needs to eat and make money. Maybe he even has some gratitude towards the dogs. Or maybe not to all these things.

Maybe when he first started doing this, he felt uncomfortable, now he's used to it, or numb to it.

As an observer, it's possible to have compassion for the dogs AND the guy, to see it all as just some of the things people and animals experience depending on various factors.

I tend to see most behavior from all creatures as forms of self-interest; the tendency in our world of seeing one's desires as more important than another's, when really, IMO, we're all the same. Human, dog, bug, fish. We live, try to keep living, do things which we think (in one way or another) are very important and must be done, and die.

I feel like I'm rambling a bit so I'll stop there for now. I think while conclusions can be simple, the discussion of them can take a while.

Monday, May 22, 2006 1:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Transformer.
Empathy is also part of human nature....and it takes much more courage to be a good person than it does to be an evil prick.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006 4:17:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

I think that what I figured out from all this is that evil pricks are necessary.. without the evil pricks people lose their impulse to do good. Society needs a good bad example to spur its conscience. So even the depraved perform a kind of public service.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006 1:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just because you are incapable of compassion, don't assume everyone else is...or that your "bad" example is necessary to spur anyone's conscience. Though it might have in this case, there are more examples of evil generating more evil... Few people in Nazi Germany tried to define themselves against Hitler.

Would you have chosen to trip up a banker? Absolute cowardice...

Saturday, September 02, 2006 12:56:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Am I incapable of compassion? Of course not. Would I trip up a banker? Of course.

Trot out Hitler, and it only proves my point. The world did, in fact, ultimately band together quite strongly against him.

And accusations of "absolute cowardice" from Anonymous posters carry little weight with me..

Saturday, September 02, 2006 1:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're all anonymous in cyber space.
But, even so, from what I've read on this blog, I can tell you are just another cynical white male who grew up in an oppressive middle class environment, and who has not had much success in his dealings with women.

And to anyone who thinks it's acceptable to trip a blind, homeless man and trot out some cliche Nietszchean theory of good and evil that just serves to justify the existing class structure, I'd rather not reveal much of anything.

Saturday, September 02, 2006 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

I've tapped more ass than you could shake a stick at, fool.

And for your information, I'm pink, not white.

Saturday, September 02, 2006 10:31:00 PM  
Blogger iBegToDither said...

The only cruelty I detect here is that we peaceloving cybernauts are forced to hear you two lovebirds bicker.

Why don't you lay down your weapons -- we're all pink inside.

Inside the anal ring of fire, that is.

And it burns burns burns.

Monday, September 04, 2006 3:55:00 PM  
Blogger iBegToDither said...

P.S. As long as we're pissing for distance, I'll add that no one taps it like the Dither Man.

Monday, September 04, 2006 3:56:00 PM  

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