Thursday, June 14, 2007

Singin' On the Subway

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 body
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...
He 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.
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!


Anonymous said...

Funny anecdote. I had a panhandler on my train into work this morning. It's a routine I've seen many times--the guy says that he's collecting food that he will then distribute to the hungry people of the streets... and then says something like:
"If you have food, put your money away and just give me all your food. And if you don't have money or food, and you happen to be really attractive, you can give me a hug and I'll get you next time."

Ew. It creeps me out every time, and I always clutch my frozen pasta lunch a little. I never give money anymore (after 8 years in NYC burying my head in my book seems like the easiest course of action). But the variety of tactics used by beggers on the subway does interest me. I wonder if some methods get more money than others.

English Major said...

I always give any change I have, or a single, if I've got one--unless the person actively creeps me out (like the dude on the 6 who has no legs and drags himself around on his arms, who just flat-out terrifies me). I don't carry cash all that often, so this probably works out to giving to about 2/5 of the subway panhandlers I encounter.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take. I think it's unfortunate that the homeless person was able to make others on the train uncomfortable. Certainly understandable, but unfortunate. If the laugh could be shared without the appearance of "at", then I think that would be preferred.

For the record, and maybe I'm a bad guy here, but I don't give to panhandlers. While I don't condemn those who do, I don't find it to be the best means of charity for me.

Ellen said...

I've seen that guy! But I've never given him money, because (a) I hate Rod Stewart and (b) I find him quite creepy. I know, not fair, but it seems like whenever I'm on his train he does that song. I hear he does a mean rendition of "What A Wonderful World," though.

My parents always told me not to give money to panhandlers, but sometimes I'll drop my spare change if it's something I really like, or if it's a song I used to play back in orchestra.

Anonymous said...

There was a similarly unattractive woman singing that song on the subway the other day (unless she was the "he" you mentioned and i was too buried in my book to notice).
I don't think giving to random beggars is an effective form of charity either. But if I were to give I am not sure I would hold off just because someone "creeped me out."

Anonymous said...

I love your blog!

Wow...we must live near each other b/c I know exactly which guy you're talking about. I've seen him on the Q and F trains. I've also heard him do "What a Wonderful Wolrd" in addition to "Sexy."

Since my rule is that I give a street performer money (just the coins in my purse) if I enjoy them and this guy's earn some of my change.

Only in NYC would strangers know the same panhandler.

BTW, I have never found him to be creepy. I guess it just depends on one's perspective.

BTWW, If you live in NYC maybe you would enjoy some economical fun fun fun: Roller Derby! We have a game tomorrow 6/16 and will be playing every other weekend this summer. Please visit for more info.

Anonymous said...

I never give to panhandlers. As every homeless expert says, giving money is just enabling what ever demon the individual is dealing with (often, some type of addiction). As one can never truly know if why the person is asking for money is legit (even if they say to buy beer), it is always better to give to groups that help/assist the homeless (the Salvation Army, among a myriad of others).

This is not meant to be cruel-hearted (as I am not immune to the "complicated inner debate" as Madame X put it), but giving to those in subway or elsewhere is really not helpful to them (plus, what they are doing is illegal).

Chitown said...

I would have given him something just because he made me laugh. A good laugh is worth its weight in gold. =)

Anonymous said...

Most panhandlers are mentally ill, and off their meds. I live in a pretty tame residential neighborhood so don't encounter this often, but I like the Jewish approach: it is not your job to judge another human being. It is a mitzvah (a positive commandment) to give, period. doesn't have to be a lot, but giving reinforces your own humanity and is considered a privilege. It's a very different way of looking at it. That said, I would give this fellow a very modest amount, like maybe a few quarters. Not commensurate with my ability to give, just a token.