Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Could Your Spare Fifty Cents?

There he was, on the subway platform, right where I remembered seeing him before. He walked up to each commuter, spoke a few words, then moved on. I knew what he was saying to them, even though he spoke quietly. He walked up to me and it was a trip down the seedy, back-alley called memory lane. “Could you spare fifty cents?”

He's a beggar. A mendicant, if you will. It's his job, his career. The first time he asked me this question was a quarter century ago. I was a poor student trying to get around the big city. He worked the cars and platforms of the subway, asking everyone if they could spare fifty cents. I couldn't, and I wouldn't if I could.

Being panhandled had become part of my daily routine. There was the lady who stood near the Park Street Church and said “spare a quarter?” to every passerby. There was the big guy with the fancy leather jacket who worked the suits in the financial district. The woman who did her begging, always, she claimed, for her kids, and always seated on a step, sometimes in Harvard Square, sometimes in Boston. And any number of people who were just another part of city life.

The “spare a quarter” lady was memorable simply because of her regular habits. My girlfriend and I both walked up that street daily as we went to class, and every day we walked by “spare a quarter.” Her thick Boston accent turned quarter into “quatah,” repeated over and over. When we graduated we no longer took that route, of course. About a year later we needed to pick up some papers at the old school. We had planned to park my heap of a car in Revere, a working class suburb of Boston, and take the train from there. There was a storm rolling in and my girlfriend was in some doubt about the wisdom of taking the trip that day. I tried to cheer her up. “Don't worry,” I said, “at least we'll get to see old “spare a quarter” again. She smiled politely, still worried about the weather. When we got to Revere I began to look for a parking spot. There were plenty, because no one else was so dumb as to try to get into town that day. The storm was starting to rage. I drove us past the seawall and the car was splashed with salt water. The waves were beginning to break over the wall. I finally figured out that this was not the best day to go walking about. I turned the car around to head home and there, walking along the soggy sidewalk, was “spare a quarter.” She was a commuter beggar. We realized then that she must live here in Revere and commuted to her begging spot in Boston on the train. Begging is a job, it seems, like fry cook and stockbroker.

It can also be a scam. This is another thing I learned during my college years. I was in Boston's busy downtown shopping district, killing time between classes (I probably should have been studying). My eyes were attracted by a pretty girl (as they often were). She was talking to a couple of guys I recognized as fairly regular area beggars. They were rough looking, with grimy clothes. Street people, as they were called, the homeless. People who beg because it is all they can do to survive. She was chatting amiably. How nice, I thought. Perhaps she is sociology student, trying to get to know the lives of these people. Or perhaps she is part of some sort of outreach program. They continued to talk. They laughed. She gave one of the men a friendly hip-check and he put his arm around her for a moment. That was a little more familiar than I would have expected for an outreach program. Curious, and still trying to kill time before my next class, I continued to observe. The pretty girl eventually walked away from her friends. A few feet away, on a busy sidewalk, she stopped. She took her gold earnings and put them in her shopping bag. She rolled the bag up, put it on the sidewalk, and then sat down with it. She reached into her dark, well groomed hair, pulled it in front of her face, slumped over, and formed a cup with her hands, ready to begin her business day.

I have no doubt that some of the people on the street are truly desperate. You just can't tell the grifters from the truly needy. “I have no sympathy,” one coworker once told me. I wondered why. She was well off, intelligent, she lived in a affluent suburb and was active in local politics. No sympathy? “I worked my way through college in New York City as a panhandler.”

Now, twenty-five years later, here's that subway beggar. I'd seen him from time to time after school, but I hadn't run across him in years. I don't usually take this train; he must prefer the busier stations. His hair is whiter and perhaps a little thinner, but nothing is changed. Same clean, non-nondescript clothing. Same face framed by the same glasses. Same line, spoken in exactly the same way, every time, to every commuter. Begging, I guess, is a steady profession.

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