It's embarrassing and it's hard work
Begging for money on street corners is really, really hard to do.
It would be difficult enough if you were simply hungry but when you’re suffering from another case of the shakes because you badly need some booze, it’s excruciating.
I know. I did it for nearly a year before accepting help to stop drinking and drugging.
Standing on a corner not too far from the deli where I needed five quarters to buy a shortie of Wild Irish Rose White - but not in front of the place because that would be bad form - I’d work up my nerve and start the pitch. And it was a pitiful thing, my “pitch”.
Because I was filled with shame and burning with humiliation I never developed the kind of patter I often hear on the subways or near the corner bodega where I live today. I mumbled. Half the people didn’t hear me and the rest mostly ignored me. Very occasionally someone would put a quarter in my hand (this is how clueless I was: I didn’t even have a cup).
Some people believe that anything that gets you to your bottom more quickly is “helping”.
I wonder about that. My bottom was never about consequences. As horrifying as it was to be standing on a street corner asking for money while trying not to vomit, weep, or scream, that wasn’t my bottom. Getting stopped by security at the grocery store with a bottle of shoplifted diluted vodka was not my bottom. Taking my overdosing partner to the emergency room - he pulled through that time only to overdose and die when I was two years sober - not my bottom.
Not one of those quarters, few as they were, that someone handed off while not looking at me, helped me.
My only way out came when the booze and drugs flatlined and completely stopped working. True, they hadn’t been working very well for a long time, but the day that they stopped working altogether was grace. I just didn’t know it at the time.
I became the one with the quarters to give and I did.
There was that big guy sleeping in the snow on the steam grate in downtown Cleveland. I began sliding a buck into Ike’s cup whenever I’d see him on my way to work. We’d nod and sometimes say hello. Then he disappeared. No way to find out if he was ok. I hoped for the best and stayed on the wagon myself. The day he ambled down the ramp in Terminal Tower to pull a key to his new apartment on a shoestring out of the neck of his hoodie was one I'll never forget.
Then I moved to New York City. More specifically I moved uptown in Manhattan, first to Inwood and now I've lived in Harlem for 21 years.
Every day I run a gauntlet of people begging me for money. Some ask for money to buy food until one tries to actually buy them food, that is, then the story often changes. It’s overwhelming which isn’t to say that I haven’t dropped a buck here and there into an outstretched cup.
There was Michael who, daily, would haul everything he needed to set up a comfortable living room near the 2/3 subway entrance. Rug, chair, upended milk crate for a table, maybe another chair in case of company. Then he’d do his business from his “room”, collecting enough money for a bottle and a sandwich. For some reason, he would yell at me from his room: "Hey, Catholic Lady, how’s it going today?" Daily I’d give him a buck and daily New York’s finest would dismantle Michael’s room.
And then there was Israel.
I thought he looked like a Roma kid with his flashing dark eyes and an impish grin (with missing teeth upfront). Early on, he was kind of endearing, always laughing and kind of dancing through his life as he asked for money. If I had a buck in my pocket I’d give it to him. As the years went by he got worn down by life on the street. He didn't smile much. I don’t see him anymore.
These days I have to admit that I pretty much never put a buck into those many outstretched hands.
I was at dinner with friends last night and with the relatively mild weather we had opted for the outdoor shed. It's literally been years since the whole gang was together. I was startled when a thin, poorly dressed man appeared next to me and asked the table for money. He was clearly used to trying to get money this way, none of the embarrassed mumbling I used to resort to.
My friends froze, mid-laugh.
"We can't help you." I said to him as he ignored me and asked the table again for a couple of bucks.
I repeated myself twice and since it was clear no one was reaching into their pockets, he left.
There are too many people like this guy (and more all the time in The Greatest Country in The World) and I just can’t pick and choose who “deserves” my buck because if I’m giving anything, it’s going to be folding money, not coins, dammit.
No one who gave me those hard-won quarters back on that street corner helped me.
Worse, by ignoring me even while handing me that quarter, they let me know I didn’t deserve to exist. I was non-human. That ground me down worse than almost anything. To be utterly invisible is a nightmare. I always kept myself tightly shut down because if I started screaming on that corner I’d never stop.
I don’t give them money but I look right at them, right in their eyes, and I say that I’m sorry but I can’t help them.
Because I can’t.
My money won’t help them any more than those few tossed-off quarters helped me. There is help for them. There was help for me and I’m grateful every day that I hit the point where I accepted that love and that help.
Maybe I’m wrong. I know people who keep a couple of extra singles in a pocket just for them. Maybe I’m being selfish or operating from my old standby position of scarcity. But I do know that I won’t ignore the person standing there with their hand, or cup, out asking me for money. I may not give them money but I see them and they’re going to know that, at least in my eyes, they do exist. And maybe even that doesn’t really help.
But I don’t know what does.
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