This is a classic New York money issue: how do you react to subway panhandlers? The other night, I was on the train and saw a regular panhandler who sings in the hope of a few coins. He's actually pretty good, I think, and does a snazzy rendition of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" while tapping out the beat with his cane. But the other night, he abruptly switched from one of his standards into this gem:
If you want my bodyHe altered the melody slightly in a way that made the song sound plaintive, and almost wholesome, but regardless of that, there was no getting around the fact that those words were being sung by a scrawny, almost toothless, at least pretending to be blind, kinda dirty, probably homeless old guy on the subway. As he made his cane-tapping way down the car, I couldn't wipe a big smile off my face, though I kept looking down at my book. When I dared to peek at others around me, I realized another young woman sitting across from me was hiding her face and trying not to crack up, and other people nearby were having the same reaction.
And you think I'm sexy,
Come on sugar, let me know.
If you really want me
Just reach out and touch me
Come on honey, tell me so...
It's kind of sad-- that panhandler knew exactly what he was doing, and really, we all should have just had a good laugh, enjoyed the song, and given him a buck or two. But because he's a panhandler, and "we" are comparatively well-off, employed, nice young ladies taking the subway home, it's like this paralysis sets in: must not look up, must not acknowledge, must not laugh! We worry that it's a bit cruel to laugh at this man, who is not sexy and whose body is the last thing any of us want to reach out and touch. And we can't quite laugh with him as someone who's trying to entertain us either, because that would somehow open us up a bit too much, to a kind of shared humanity that's hard to face.
I think I've given this particular singer money in the past, though I didn't this time. Like most New Yorkers, I encounter people asking for money several times a day, and the complicated inner debate that inspires is worth its own post, which I'll tackle one of these days. In the meantime, I've just got to get that song out of my head!