The Good Nature Market on Broadway
York Street was quiet, dark. The occasional headlight painted my crystallized breaths a warm yellow-white. Snow no longer blanketed the sidewalk, but the March night was cold. The wind pierced my jacket.
I’d just left the DMCA after managing to upload a character sketch on time. A few yards ahead of me, a thirty-something black man commanded the corner. Trim and lanky, his dark frame stood in relief against the brutalist School of Architecture across the street. He was asking for money.
Conditioned by parents, cartoons, and martial arts instructors to avoid strangers, I approached the corner with my head down and hands deep in my pockets. Barely able to nod and smile at my roommates in broad daylight, I wasn’t about to discuss the weather on this Sunday night street corner.
My contingency plan—darting into the crosswalk before the man could start speaking—withered away under the “Don’t Walk” signal’s glare. Realizing my shifty eyes were the best conversation starter he was going to get, the man launched into his appeal.
“Hey, man, can you help me out?” he asked, speaking like a used car salesman.
“I don’t have any cash,” I replied, truthfully for once. “Sorry.”
I’m bad at navigating these situations.
Mumbled apologies sound hollow when I’m about to buy half of Durfee’s. Silently walking away makes me feel like Stephen Dedalus at Jesus camp, about to vomit my Catholic guilt all over the sidewalk. Handing over a few $1s infuriates my inner Republican, who chides me for forking over another handout to a drug addict.
“Please, man,” he pleaded. “I need some money for a train ticket up to Hamden. I’ve been all over the place for two hours now and nobody will listen to me.”
I muttered a few I-don’t-knows, hoping either he or the “Don’t Walk” signal would disappear. Neither did.
“I’ve got my girl hitting me up and asking where I am,” he said, pulling out his cell phone as proof. “I gotta get home to my daughter, but I’m a few bucks short for the train, and I haven’t got nothing from people but a couple quarters.”
I was sorry for the desperate father but wary of the tall black man. Those “Stranger Danger” videos from karate class had implied he might reveal his true demonic form at any second and steal me away.
“I’m sorry, dude, but I don’t have anything,” I said, checking my wallet. Nothing.
“But that’s a debit card, right?” he asked, noticing the plastic rectangle. “There’s an ATM right down the street.”
My rebuttals exhausted, I agreed to take out some money. The man grinned, thanked me, and gestured toward Broadway.
He made conversation along the way, judging—correctly—that I wouldn’t flee down an alleyway if he asked about my major. My responses sounded more like nervous yips than coherent sentences. Still, he thanked me constantly and greeted everyone we passed.
My shoulders relaxed a bit. The man was genuinely nice.
After jaywalking to the other side of the street, we encountered another student heading in the same direction. She didn’t acknowledge us, understandably cautious of the chin-strapped nineteen-year-old and his much older companion.
I wasn’t about to talk to her, either, what with the social anxiety and all, but my travel partner freely hailed her. They chatted about the weather as we approached York and Elm, my nervous laughter punctuating their thoughts. Mostly certain that demons never kidnap two innocents at once, I welcomed the company.
At the intersection, the other student said a quick goodbye and headed east. Turning the other way, we crossed over to Broadway and into the Good Nature Market. The man pointed out the non-denominational ATM near the front door, eager for his ticket home.
I tried to ignore the Yalies buying late-night waffle fries as I fumbled for my wallet. Had they seen this man before? Was he in here every Sunday night, always conspicuously out of cash?
It was my last chance to renege. To smother any residual Christian guilt and storm out of the store while decrying Obama for paying the man’s cell phone bill. To tell him I had to finish a paper on something Yale-sounding—the inherent paradoxes of Soviet perestroika, maybe—and scurry out popping Adderall and quoting Marx. To question why he’d ridden the train to New Haven without enough money for a return ticket in the first place.
Screw it. I’d already walked all the way here.
“How much do you need?” I asked, swiping my card.
“Forty dollars,” he replied, snickering as I gulped down the snake oil.
The train from Union Station to Wallingford, the suburb next to his native Hamden, was just $5. A 700% increase for an 11:00 p.m. train? Not likely.
But, hell, I’d already put in half my PIN number. It was a bit late to turn him away now. So I withdrew $40 earned the previous summer loading Peapod trucks to the beat of “Trap Queen” and handed it to the jokey, friendly, swindling stranger. He thanked me profusely for perhaps the seventh time before leaving the store.
I never saw him again. Whether he used my $40 to tuck his daughter in or to share a needle behind a gas station, at least his smile was genuine.
We push them away with Denalis, J. Crews, and Kiko Milanos, but the begging poor linger in revitalized downtowns like freckles after a bad sunburn. The 20th century scalded the American city, leaving behind a disproportionately black band of poor people who look out of place amongst luxury lofts and egregiously pink bubble tea shops. Their tattered jackets and glassy eyes shatter our carefully-constructed self-absorption, compelling us, the “poor” college kids, to reexamine our constant declarations of poverty.
My train ticket story isn’t unique, of course. Walk around a city for more than five minutes and you’ll hear some variation of the “something’s wrong, and I just need a few bucks to fix it” story. The problem, always specific and often tragic, can range from a craving for Chinese food to a pitifully underfed child.
In its direct appeal to pathos, this begging tactic distinguishes itself from the cardboard sign technique by actively exploiting our hunger for sympathetic narrative. The panhandler knows their story might slow your hurried pace, soften your averted eyes, allow you to see yourself in them. It’s a lot harder to mutter “get a job” once someone tells you their mother is dying in a hospital, after all—especially if yours is too.
The borderline homeless hope we’ll see our own past or present desperation in theirs. Professional writers do the same thing, selling real or imagined trauma to readers aching to empathize.
And yes, just like fiction writers, panhandlers know how to lie. We’re taught that each one, regardless of the web of tragedy they spin, is a heroin addict in disguise. A dollar donated for food will be wasted on cheap vodka and a cigarette. The beggars with hearts of gold only exist in Daredevil and The Wire.
But we can’t let the possibility—even probability—of falsehood permanently sew our wallets into our back pockets. For one thing, if the story of a sick relative or empty stomach is true, listening to pedestrians reject it on the basis of appearance all day must be humiliating and insulting. This sort of ever-present denial might be even worse for the liars, however. The constant explicit or implicit denial of their narrative only further tests their connection with reality, something already made tenuous by surviving on the margins of society with a false identity.
The personas we portray to the world are pockmarked with inauthenticity; imagine spending every day being reminded of your tiny untruths. Roommates, professors, and dining hall employees all reminding you that you didn’t really score a 2250 on the SATs—you’re just afraid your friends would mock an 1800. That you never actually hooked up with that junior last semester—you just trudged back to your dorm after vomiting on her shoes. That you aren’t literally holding your breath to study in Rome—you’re just afraid you won’t make any friends.
At the end of the day, you’d be lost in a vacuum of negatives, aware only of what wasn’t.
Now imagine doing the same thing, but with schizophrenia, or without a chimneyed dorm room to retreat to. A third of the homeless are mentally ill, the victims of a psychiatric care infrastructure dismantled in the 1980s. Most can’t find a bed in the overfull shelter system. All face widespread political apathy. If you wouldn’t give them $1 on the street, why would you vote for a $10 million relief package on the Senate floor?
It doesn’t matter to me whether the train ticket guy told the truth. I’d rather he was, of course. Then I could more easily fit that anecdote into my inner mosaic of Christian self-sacrifice. Even if he was lying, though, it’s not like I’ve never bent the truth to get ahead or lied about the urban poor because I can.
I lie to their faces, mumbling that I don’t have any money when I mean that I don’t have any for them. I comfortably reveal my $200 worth of emergency money to the Internet, but stammer “I don’t carry cash” to the man in the wheelchair.
I lie about them in class. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality constantly come up in urban studies discussions. My denunciations of deindustrialization and white flight prove dishonest when I can’t look someone impoverished by these forces in the eye.
I lie about their identity. When I write about urban life, I call them “inner city residents” because “beggar” and “vagrant” sound medieval. But such a vague phrase “blur[s] the outline and cover[s] up all the details,” as George Orwell noted in Politics and the English Language. I mean poor and black. Saying so outright, however, would necessitate grappling with problematic social and political complexities.
I lie about my identity, which hinges considerably on circumstances I could never control. I attribute my relative success to ambition and hard work, for example, but all the self-discipline in the world wouldn’t have changed the neighborhood I grew up in or how much money my parents made. I’m statistically less likely to panhandle not because I’m ambitious, but simply because I wasn’t born black, mentally unstable, or with enough patriotism to get a foot blown off overseas.
So maybe it’s time I spare a few dollars, or even $40 from time to time. I might as well pay the panhandlers for not ratting me out yet.