Thursday, July 29, 2004

U.S.: Democrat Con...

Carole King is singing "You've Got A Friend." Unfortunate choice.

Every time I hear that song (I used to like it, too), I think of the bums and hustlers who frequent the NYC subways. In the ten years between 1990 and 2000, every stumble bum and pissin' tail junkie tried to hustle funds from riders by hurriedly parrotting that song.

It drove me nuts. At first, I gave. Then realization struck. This was not a one time request; this was an every day, 365 days a year hustle. This was a bunch of winos and junkies and plain ol' lazy bastards levying a tax on already over-burdened subway riders. One for which we could present no receipt to the IRS at either the city, state, or federal level.

Then, one day, a further epiphany. The people panhandling (once upon a time this was an honorable word that referred to people who bust their arses to find gold) received some form of welfare, some kind of SSI benefits, or some kind of monthly check which they lined up outside the check cashing office to convert into quickly disposable dollars. You saw them. They hustled past you with that precious check in their hands, focused like a bird-dog on the game, and they stood in a malodorous line leading into the check cashing place.

That was the last day I gave a penny to any bum either on the street or in the subways. If they wanted a meal, I would purchase it. However, there was a catch to that, too, cuz a meal was legal tender on the streets, as good as money for scoring a few rocks or a joint. The war that waged in my soul. What should I do? Should I continue to give knowing that gifts of food would soon be pumping crazily in some junky's veins, pulling him further down into degradation? It would be oozing corrosively through some wino's liver bringing him closer to the edge.

I couldn't give. So, I didn't. I spoke with them and explained why I would not give. If I were carrying a heavy load and some street hustler offered to bear it for a couple of bucks, I'd not deny a man a chance to earn an honest living. How he used the dollar he earned was his business.

One morning, I was riding the #3 train from New Lots heading in to work. There I am, sitting at the end of a seat, my head buried in the Bible cuz I was trying to memorize the Book of Galatians. I was so totally caught up in what I was doing that I didn't even see the hand that inserted itself under my nose. It took a beat or five for the intrusion to register and for me to realize that not only was someone standing expectantly in front of me, but a number of people were gazing in our direction with the same air of expectation. Raising my head, I saw the Caribbean bum who had begun to haunt the New Lots to Nevins part of the line.

The normal bum approach is to extend a hand and to withdraw it when nothing came. This Caribbean bum put me on the spot because I sat there with my little Bible open clearly concentrating on it. He sought to determine if my faith was backed up with works. Unknown to him, that morning, cockroaches could've broken their necks in my pocket. I didn't have a penny on me besides my tokens. Moreover, I did not like it that he thought he could force me into making a gesture to prove something to the audience of commuters. Nobody defines my faith for me.

So, I looked up into his eyes, looked at his hand, and bent my head over the Bible again. I'm a July-born woman with a wide streak of stubborn (talk about a war between the flesh and the Spirit!) and am usually happily indifferent to what other people think about me. In leaving his extended hand before me, the bum converted request into demand. Where I would have smiled and offered a brief apology at request, I thought that Christian liberty left me free to ignore demand.

So, I did.

That's what Carole King's song evokes; that whole era of forced generosity, the growing consciousness that straphangers were being abused financially, and the efforts of the bums, winos, and junkies to use our faith towards a perverted end.


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