I was on Bart yesterday, only anomalous in that it was a weekend, generally a more Bart free situation for me, and was feeling a little agitated because the trains were running late and I was trying to make a connection to CalTrain to head down the Peninsula to Palo Alto. Of course, I missed the connection and was feeling supper annoyed about this and had to remind myself that I was not actually “late” for anything, and that another train was coming (albeit in almost a half an hour – oh American public transportation how I wish you could pick up the pace a bit) and so I sat in the sun and waited. This turned out to be a good thing, because as I sat in the sun in Millbrae waiting for my train, it gave me time to do some conscious consideration about why I was feeling so out of sorts. Suffice it to say it was not about the missed connection.
Earlier, while I had been on Bart contemplating the likelihood of missing said connection, a gentleman had come through the car. He had a prepared announcement that he was making. The gist of it was that his son was stuck at the airport and could not board a plane because he had no money for luggage fees. This man gave quite a lot of details, the airline info, that he had been talking to Bart police, that he was desperate because if his son did not get back to Chicago he would lose his visitation rights, where he worked, and various assurances that he was telling the truth. And then he said he had a military ID because he was a veteran.
A couple of things to note about this: just about every day that I ride Bart, at least once someone will be working their way through the cars of the train asking for some sort of assistance. It may be food, or money, sometimes even clothes. Every day. Just about all of them have a story they share. Some are long, some are short. I sometimes listen, I sometimes do not. I also have a tendency to assume that the more detail that is offered the less likely it is that the story I am hearing is really true, like, in a factually accurate way. But I am pretty sure that is not the point.
Yesterday, as this man, John he said his name was, finished his story I gave him a $1. I might have given him two. I happened to have some singles in my hand and I was on the way to meet some friends in a bar to spend far more money than that on things I really and truly do not need. As I handed him the money he gave me the regular “God bless” and all that, and that is nice, or at least better than the “fuck yous” we so often get from our fellow humans, and I nodded and went back to thinking about my inconsequential missed connection.
The next thing I knew a young man sitting behind me was demanding to see the military ID that John had said he had. “I just want to see the ID!’ He yelled out as John worked the car. “It doesn’t look like a real ID!” John kept on going and this man was getting really annoyed. “This is a scam!” He yelled out. “I know! I am a veteran. It is a really good scam but he is lying to you!” He was treating this like a PSA for the car. He continued, “You people are getting robbed, this is a scam – it is a good one, but it is a scam!” He took a breath. “These are the worst kind of people!” He yelled. “Impersonating military personnel. The worst.” By this time John had moved on to the next car, but the orator behind the PSA was really wanting to make sure people knew that he knew what was up.
The worst kind of people? I thought. In a world with the Westboro Baptist church, this guy was the worst kind of people? In a world with racist young men who chant they “would rather see a nigger hang from a tree than be an SAE”, and then cry that their entire group is painted in a negative light for the actions of a few, this guy on asking for money on a train was the worst kind of people? When we see organizations televising beheadings, or individuals going into schools with guns and killing everyone they see with automatic weapons, a hustler on the train is the worst kind of people? Surrounded by scandalous lying politicians, greedy corporate entities that are profiting on the ruination of the environment, animal abusers, child abusers, spousal abusers, rapists, murderers, and fucking plain old mean people…. this guy asking for money on the train earned the label the worst kind of people?
I don’t think so.
I don’t know if John was telling the truth. As I said, the more detail I hear, the less of it I cling to as fact. But that is hardly the real issue. If someone gets to the point where they are publicly putting themselves out there to ask strangers for money – something has gone horribly awry. Regardless of the situation, something is no longer working. And if I see people every single day at both ends of my commute and throughout it who are in a situation where they have to ask people for money – the reason they are asking for the money is not my concern. Maybe Mr. PSA thinks that there is a more virtuous way to be poor. Maybe he thinks if someone is busking, they could rightly ask for a handout. Maybe he thinks if some one is a drug addict or a drunk they do not deserve a handout, but if they are quietly holding their hand out for alms, they are worthy. I do not really know. The fact is, that by the time someone is asking strangers for spare change, something has changed in their life in such a way that they have arrived at a place very few people I know could ever understand. Do the reasons matter? I imagine John and others like him have worked out that people like a story – a reason or a justification, for giving. I imagine saying, “I am a man who cannot meet his needs today because circumstances suck,” is not such a great story. I imagine that as people decide who to give money to they do a lot of thinking about whether this person “brought it on themselves” or is “scamming” or “working the system.” I cannot imagine that given the choice many folks would choose to beg over self-sufficiency, though I certainly have friends who say it is so.
I am far more concerned about the fact that I live in a country with the greatest wealth ever known and am faced with unbelievable poverty on the daily. I gave John two bucks because I do not care what his story is. I do not care if he is going to use those two dollars for a beer, for a room for the night, for a burger, or to pay a luggage fee for his kid, or he just needs some cash. I care that we have so many people who cannot meet their daily needs that it is no longer fair, accurate, or relevant to say that “they brought it on themselves.”
The worst kind of people? Oh, I have a list for you… and I can assure you John is not on it.