Saturday, July 10, 2010

Subway culture and the panhandler

I lived for nine years in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a town of crooked one-way streets, Irish bars, and, perhaps most ubiquitously, innumerable homeless people. Living in and amongst those same streets and watering holes, Boston's displaced roam freely, their casual insouciance unperturbed by the occasional disapproving policeman or irritable bench neighbor. The city, while perhaps not embracing them, at least affords them a generous measure of nomadic self-determination, and for that reason Boston remains a favorite sanctuary for the housing-challenged.

This is not to say these hardy men and women are without want. When their cash flow devolves into a steady trickle downstream, our homeless friends take to the subway -- the T, as it is known -- and, in the spirit of of the First Amendment, brazenly wield their vocal chords to great effect in pursuit of, if not happiness itself, its closest approximation as embodied by a fast-food meal or a bottle of Jim Beam. This commonly takes the form of a bleating voice in which the plaintive tones of defeat can clearly be heard: "Can you spare some change?"

It is more a statement than a question, even as its last syllable hangs desperately in the air, an unresolved dissonance calling for resolution. The sincerity is as evident as the tact is lacking: money is needed. Whether for drugs or food, alcohol or medicine, we neither know nor care; they are here, among us, and the choice is ours. We toss a bill or two their way, or we do not. We look away, avert our eyes. We do not remember them, nor they us; strangers passing in the night, all.

New York's subway system is home to investment bankers, Mexican accordion players, and apathetic Upper West Siders. Broadway houses the nation's finest productions, but the real theater, unfolding in stuttered moments, performs for free somewhere between 96th Street and Park Place on the 2 line. Here the homeless traipse through subway cars, plying their craft as they wedge their way through the tired ranks of the gainfully employed.

The last time I shared a New York subway car with a panhandler, I felt as if I were listening to a sales pitch. I was. While a bit melodramatic for my taste, one cannot argue with the $2.25 price of admission. Words such as "interim" and "requisite" filled the air, as New Yorkers turned back to their New Yorker in silence. One is constantly under the impression of having seen this particular solicitor before, perhaps on the same train line. The pleas for money are theatrical (and thus memorable), recalling a failed actor blandly reciting lines that have long since lost all meaning. They inevitably begin with some variation of "I'm sorry, and I don't mean to disturb you," but of course they do. Trust has left the building, or at the very least the subway car, and empathy along with it. I do not drop money into the hat.

I'm not sure why Boston and New York diverge in this way, nor will I ever, most likely. It is merely one of the myriad aspects in which the compressed millions that comprise our modern cities coalesce into collective entities of their own. Somehow, these cities of random individuals gain distinctive, differentiated, holistic identities; somehow homeless culture becomes but one among countless mirrors reflecting these. Personally, I can respect the Bostonian directness, a challenge to the general public to lend a helping hand. I feel no such affinity for the New Yorker, who, borrowing the cadence of a stage voice and the persuasive technique of a politician, alienates me before completing a sentence. Like everything related to Boston and New York (especially as felt by a Bostonian), one of the two must be superior. Somewhere, a master panhandler is crafting the perfect pitch, and waiting for its debut in the city.

1 comment: