Friday, May 26, 2006

Excuse Me, Ladies and Gentlemen ...

Just had one of those annoying NYC subway train experiences: a supposedly homeless guy with a very bad sales pitch. Anyone who’s lived here any appreciable length of time (I’ve been here since November of 1987) knows the drill – although you had to live here in the late 80s, the golden days of crack – to truly grasp the full experience.

This was a young, twentyish Latino, stocky and in good shape, who appeared very clean, didn’t stink, and if he was nuts or stoned, didn’t project that image. When he got on the train, I simply thought, “That guy looks a little weird, a little too wired.” Any time someone with a fucked-up agenda steps on a subway train, if you have the right eyes, you can see them. They’re either too nervous or too aggressive, and 99% of the time, they’re guys, and guys who immediately stand in a weird place no one would choose to stand on the train, like someone getting ready to make a speech.

Here’s his sales pitch, not verbatim, but close enough, all delivered while this guy paced menacingly up and down a length of the subway car. For the veterans, you know the first five words:

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Luis, and I just got out of prison. I’m hungry. I don’t want your money. I want your food because I’m hungry. I can’t work right now. I’m in a program that won’t let me work. This is embarrassing. I got a four-year college degree before going into prison. I’m a licensed painter and carpenter. I can work, and want to, but they won’t let me in this program. So I have to get on this train and beg for food. If you could give me food or money, I’d appreciate it. God forbid if anything happens to you or your family. If you are ever made victims. I would hate to see that happen. You’re all just one paycheck away from being in my shoes. Look, I got my painter’s and carpenter’s union certificates right here. I want to work, but they won’t let me. So I got to be here. Sorry to disturb your commute. I would hate to see any harm come to you or your family, believe me. I choose to do this instead of harming people, which I can do ...”

Please understand that while he was yelling this spiel – about five times – he was glaring at everyone who would make eye contact with him. I positioned my legs in a defensive position where I sat – left leg a little forward, right foot set to pivot, body turned slightly to my right so if I had to stand up and belt this guy, I’d be ready.

You could feel every body on the subway train tense up, the main reasons being the vague threats the guy was making – just got out of prison, god forbid if something happened to you – and the way he was carrying himself, like he was getting ready to haul off and clock anyone who didn’t give him money. He was taking way too long, too, working the car for a good five minutes, going through his sales pitch repeatedly.

New York City subway commuters take enough shit in the course of using the system without having to take this sort of shit. I rarely give these pricks a dime, mainly because they’re liars for the most part, and if they’re not, they should be institutionalized. Call it cold, but when you’ve sat through one of these scenarios, literally, over a thousand times, you know the drill, and the drill sucks. If it’s your gig to help the guy temporarily by feeding his habit (and it’s always a habit of some sort), one human being showing a hip sort of compassion, that’s fine. But it’s my gig not to prolong his bullshit trip – the sooner the guy hits bottom and gets real help, the better. Bottom line, anyone giving him a dollar to get drunk or high isn’t going to make his life better.

The guy’s line of bullshit was off. What kind of program for guys who just got out of prison: a. doesn’t allow them to seek gainful employment, and b. even if that was true, wouldn’t then compensate them with living/eating arrangements? If he’s in some sort of rehab or halfway house, he’s being taken care of, and he’s being encouraged to find gainful employment – fuck, if he has a four-year-college degree and union experience, he should be able to finding something, even with a felony crime on his record.

As for being “one paycheck away from being in my shoes” – buddy, guess again. I’m about 50 paychecks from being in your fucked-up shoes, and I’m far from wealthy, just good at saving money and making it last, and not fucking my life up with drugs. It’s always a bad deal to insult people you want to get money from. Not just insult them, but offer the vague threat of physical violence. You could cut the tension with a knife in the subway car. It’s pretty rare that you get a homeless guy this bad, but it does happen every now and then.

Besides which, I’m not even sure he was homeless. If he was in some sort of post-prison program as he stated, he was not homeless. He was well-fed – the guy was clearly in very good shape and not going hungry. He didn’t stink, and his clothes were clean, which is very unusual for a person on the train asking for money.

All in all, a bad trip. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief when he got off three very long subway stops later.

Still, it brought back memories of the late 80s in New York, a time in which I’d step over at least half a dozen slumbering homeless people either in subway stations or on the sidewalk. Literally step over because there’d be five or six of them sacked out in a row. One of my most vivid memories that first fall in New York is taking the 1 Train to work from the Bronx, pulling into 168th Street station in Manhattan, glancing out as the subway door opened, and long, unbroken line of sleeping homeless people in the back of station, probably about 50 people. The smell was unbelievable.

Most morning train rides to work at that time, whether it was the 1 or the 4 in the Bronx, no matter what subway car you got on, there’d be at least a handful of sleeping homeless people, some of them laid out over four seats, often causing fights when some pissed-off commuter on a jam-packed train would simply push them away, usually barking something profound like “get off the fucking train, you piece of shit.” The way I saw it, these people had enough problems without me making them feel even worse. But it was a daily, in-your-face experience, basically until Giuliani took over, and these people slowly disappeared. (Guess again if you’re thinking I disapproved – these people belong in shelters and institutions, not heavily-used public transportation hubs and vehicles. And if the shelters are fucked up, that’s a separate issue that needs to be addressed.)

The 1 Train on the weekend, going to the Bronx? Fuck. It was what I call the Homeless Follies of 1989. Literally a nonstop line of homeless people coming through the train, looking for money. Some deranged. Some sincere. Some just sticking out their hand. There was that crazy-looking black guy with multi-colored dreads and wraparound shades who’d blurt on a broken saxophone and demand money to make him stop. (He did very well.) On a trip from say, 14th Street to 225th Street, it was not unusual on a Friday night to see 20 homeless people walk through my subway car making their pitch.

Recently, a friend visited, and while I was hustling to get her to the subway train, I noticed she was pausing at the corner. What’s wrong, I asked. “Didn’t you see those homeless guys in the middle of the block? Picking food out of the garbage? Isn’t that horrible?”

In all honesty, I hadn’t noticed them, probably because I’m conditioned, after seeing such scenarios, again, thousands of times, that they don’t even register now. Are we all supposed to stop and ponder inhumanity every time we see this? I tried that the first few hundred times … it didn’t get me or the homeless people anywhere. Should I give them money? Again, you would think doing this, the person receiving the money would hustle off to the nearest deli and get food. That never happened when I tried. I’ve seen homeless people turn food away, because they want money for drugs, and food is a secondary concern. Is the whole gist to provide good karma for yourself and the world by simply giving another human in need whatever he needs to get by? If it is, again, by the 1,586th time, you’ve had it. And that’s when you turn up your collar and keep moving.

My answer to her: “Yeah, I saw them. But we need to get you on this subway train to get you to your show on time, and that’s more a priority right now than pondering the darkness of life.”

It’s one of those New York things, dealing in whatever way you choose to deal with the homeless. There’s a guy I constantly see on the N Train, this large black guy who obviously has some sort of drug or alcohol problem, but manages to function like a normal human being. I say this with certainty, because I’ve been seeing him for the past three years or so regularly, usually on the rush-hour trains in the evening. His story is that he’s a basketball coach who needs money for his kids’ team. That’s it, same story every time, whether or not basketball is in season – no sobbing, no weirdness. He’s smiling, and he always says, “If you can’t give me any money, please, just give me a smile.” And he walks through the train, generally pocketing a good bit of change, but otherwise pointing at people smiling and saying, “There it is! Thank you.”

And that’s about as good as it gets with homeless people on the train.


Jordan Hoffman said...

That's 5 Fingers Floyd you are talking about! My girlfriend and he have a great rapport.

I very rarely give to panhandlers either. For the basic reason you mention -- after the 9 millionth time, it just becomes annoying. Especially if you are nickel & diming it yourself -- as I've been doing these last few years.

Sometimes, though, I'll see someone who really looks like they are on the verge of death -- they really look like they could just fall over right in front of you & die. I usually give to them -- and if I don't, I usually feel bad about it.

funny, though, yesterday I gave to a guy -- typical situation -- sturdy enough looking black guy reeking of alcohol - -approached me just as I was about to make a cell phone call on the corner (lower midtown). I knew instantly he wanted money from me, but he took A LOOOOONG time to get to his pitch. Meanwhile, I got shit I gotta do. He's going on and on about how he never does this, but he's in a situation, and I look like a guy who would help a brother out, so on so on. Finally I interrupt, with a smile, "Yes? Yes? And you want??" Somehow, the way it came out of my mouth and he cracked up. And I cracked up. We're both standing there cracking up -- Here he is trying to sweet me with bullshit and I just have no time. I reached into my pocket and emptied out my change -- maybe 80-something cents. "Here -- here you are!" He walks off giggling. "You all right!"

Here, in print, it looks like I was an insulting bastard -- I dunno. . .you had to be there.

George Fiala said...

Since I don't take the train much, I'm out of touch with the 'touch' situation, but here on the street in Brooklyn you still have your neighborhood regulars who walk around at 3 in the morning looking for handouts, plus people scavenging garbage for scrap metal and bottles.

It always seems to me that begging is a lot harder way to make money than most jobs.. but maybe some of these guys who seem to do this for a living make a lot more money that I suspect...