i'm on the train the other night. well. actually it was evening and night was coming on fast, turning the sky dark before the world could readjust. everything was slowing down and speeding up all at once, the way it always does when rush hour stops to catch its breath. i was on the 1 and i was past 96th street, which means i was almost home. something in me began to relax a little -- probably because i was imagining my sofa, my guitar, my ottoman and a pot of tea, and so on. i was so relaxed, i dozed off a little. it was the stench that woke me up.
there's no getting away from the full on assault on your senses, and your nose is usually the first thing to get blasted. something always stinks in this city. so when i smelled something foul, it didn't phase me. but when it lingered, i woke all the way up.
it was some non-descript mangy-looking homeless guy. he was lanky, he was black, he was moving slow, and he smelled like pure filth. shockingly coatless in this freezing weather. i can only imagine that his stench was the one thing that kept him warm. he had his hand out as he mumbled something like, could you help me out. something like that. it was singsongy, kinda catchy. i didn't really pay any attention to him. there must have been a half a dozen homeless people that passed in front of me since i jumped on at midtown. the question looms large on the horizon, especially in hard times like these: do you give money to homeless people on the subway or whereever? or do you give to the organizations in the city that are supposed to be helping them?
i only give homeless people food when they ask me for money because my theory is, you can't shoot up a sandwich. usually i have fruit but if the person in question only has five teeth in their mouth, how could they possibly gum down a granny smith apple?
i was on my way to ignoring this guy when the sister in front of me confronted him. she looked like she'd just come from a long hard day out working in a field somewhere. weary as all get out. she was bigger and taller than him, and she wasn't afraid of him.
the conversation went something like this:
woman: can i ask you a question?
homeless guy: (strikes a somewhat nonchalant pose) you can ask me whatever you want.
woman: (folds her arms and tilts her head, looks him up and down) you ain't got no physical disability or whatever. you're a man. a grown man. you ablebodied. why don't you go out and get a job, 'stead 'a begging people who work for a living for their hard-earned money?
homeless guy: (totally taken aback) i...i...i can't find a job. i can't find...
woman: you can go outta here tomorrow, go downtown and sell newspapers for $50 a day! did you hear me?! i said $50 a day!
homeless guy: (waving his arms around like kermit the frog) i went down there when they first started doin' that years ago but...but i couldn't get anybody to work with me...
woman: i get up at 5 o'clock in the morning every morning and i sell papers all day and you expect me to give you money? you know what you are? lazy! you're lazy!
homeless guy: i'm not lazy! they owe me! you need to tell them to give me my rations.
woman: you need to get a job. i'm a woman, and i...
homeless guy: you bein' a woman has nothing to do with anything.
woman: yes it does! you're a man, you're supposed to get out here and work.
homeless guy: gender has nothing to do with it.
woman: gender has EVERYTHING to do with it.
...and on and on they went, like no one else was on the train. and the train was packed. and as quiet as a tomb. this sister was relentless. she let him have it so hardcore that he quickly slid his way to the other car, yelling at her all the way, but steady moving in the opposite direction until nothing was left but the smell of him. as she found a seat at the opposite end of the car, she addressed the guy that gave him a dollar and said that if he had money to give away, he needed to give her some, too. and with that, there was a collective gasp. or an exhale. i couldn't tell. you're making it worse for all of us, she said.
and with that it was over. actually, it wasn't over. i finally got off the train.
that angry little exchange sealed it for me, afresh. i don't give money to homeless people. i just don't.