Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How a beggar made a beggar outta me.

I gave twelve dollars to a beggar a week ago, the most I've ever given to one person, and I still don't know that I have a full handle on it.

But first, let's set the scene. I'm on my way to the franklin ave. stop, which is half a mile away, up eastern parkway toward the museum and the arch and all the stoneworking impressive stuff of Brooklyn. I'm about a block away, at the corner of Bedford and Eastern Parkway, right near the Washington Mutual, and this dude shows up. He doesn't approach me so much as appear from behind a trash can.

He's mouthing words and pointing to his head. I have no idea what any of this means because he's kind of behind me, barely in my peripheral vision, and I've got my ipod ears in this particular Wednesday. But I turn my head and turn on my real ears and he's insistent:

Hey, look, I don't want your money. I just want to talk to you for a second.

yeah, right. But I hang out, because, hey, I already stopped, which is the equivalent of buying the ticket. You might as well ride the ride.

But this dude's different. Not at first. At first he's the same pose, same posture: kind of leaned forward with his hands gesturing in front of him like he can conjure up a crystal ball to show the hardluck past he's trying to make sense out of and/or embellish for pity's sake--

I'm from New Orleans, I've been told I have four months to live, my baby girl is hungry...

So far, so good. This is going exactly according to script. Having a short period of time to be alive and being from a disaster struck area (despite the fact that the disaster was, what? Two years ago?) always seems to make its way into the narrative on way or another. I look for signs that he's a junky, which means getting closer than I should have, because then things get a little weird--

He smells. But not like a junky smells. Like sickness. His eyes are rheumy, they're leaking goo--they ain't just red and veiny, they have some sort of pus that is actively trying to escape from his tear ducts. His eyes, in short, are sneezing. I see scablike things all over his face but they don't like they're from being picked at, they look like they're from down below, like they're raised up from beneath. Can't really tell. Plus his clothes aren't THAT raggedy, so I wonder if he's got family or some shit taking care of him.

Then I start listening again, ironically because he's stopped talking. There's a hitch in his rap, and he's breathing different, shorter, faster. Uh-oh--

It's just, I'm not gonna be around for my daughter, my baby, but I wanna....It hurts me, it hurts me, man--

And here the gesture goes from outward to hands bringing something out of his chest.

Can you help?

Things are back to normal. How much?

No, no--he's real adamant now. I don't want no money. I told you that.

I'm making the confused face.

I want you--and here the speech slows down, like it's in a different language I can't really understand yet--to go, down, there, with me, and buy some milk for my baby daughter.

I can't just give you some money to pay for it?

He shakes his head even as I'm reaching into my pocket for whatever loose change I got.

So you won't take this if I try to give it to you?

It's not even a question. He's still shaking his head. I haven't seen him twitch or tweak or look like he's fiending once, and he damn sure ain't on anything. He's got it too together for that right now.

He looks different again, and then I can see it. He's helpless, but he still has his dignity. A rare thing to see in a beggar. It's almost like he's not begging at all.

I blink, then I ask him where, if it's close?

Just down here--he doesn't smile, he just points. Not relieved. He actually tells me first thing once we're walking,

I've been waiting an hour and a half, man.

As if he's been waiting for me. I don't say anything--I'm a little thunderstruck at the turn of events, the literal turn of events, as we get off Eastern parkway and head down Bedford. I start getting a little worried, and my thoughts are my own, and my thoughts are questions: Is this dude taking me to his fence? His dealer? Where are we headed exactly?

He's still jabbering--

It'll only take a minute, I promise.


I just needed someone to stop.

Well, yeah--I was hoping it was close. I'm kind of in a hurry.

Not too much hurry to do somebody a kindness. Nothing in the world feels better than doing good for someone else.

And I've been feeling bad lately, so this hits me pretty hard, and i realize that's why I'm walking right next to him right now, a total sucker, and I tell him,

Yeah, that's kinda what I realized back there listening to you talk. That I'm not in as much of a hurry as I thought.

Then we're at the entrance, and it's a bodega after all. Just your average corner store in brooklyn, replete with the standard watchful teenager, maybe younger, at the door, and his grouchy taciturn father or uncle or whatever, middle eastern or Indian or some combination thereof, sitting behind the counter surrounded by bulletproof plexiglass. He doesn't even move his head at this guy, who points to someplace behind the counter. He doesn't have to; the grouchy man is silently placing a can of enfamil on the countery.

Seventeen dollars.

He says it and I about run right there. I stare at the man, then I stare at the can--impossibly small at that price, friendo!--then I stare at the 17.00 in green LCD on the cash register window, then I look at the guy again. He's kind of wincing in that frownface that says, See, I told you so--can't get ahead in this town.

Let's take a break in the action for a sec. Where I was on my way to was the farmer's market, and more generally grocery shopping. The market doesn't take cards, so the easiest way to do the shopping every week is to take out the amount of money budgeted that week (Olivia and I take turns) for food out of an ATM, and have the "wad," as we call it, ready for me when I head out Wednesday.

Now, as soon as we entered that bodega my brain starting doing some quick goat thinking. I had my hand jammed in the front right pocket, which is my wad repository, and I was thinking about how, this week, I already spent 8 dollars of it, so I had exactly 132 dollars in assorted denominations floating in my pocket. It's my ass if I lose that money, and we sure as shit ain't gonna NOT eat for a week. I make the fastest moral judgment in the world and decide I'm willing to pay up to the amount of the loose bills--i.e., non 20s--in my pocket for my time with this fella. My fingers grab the wad as I walk in, peel off the ten and two singles, and jam the 20s (you may call them hamiltons) back in the wad repository. I'm therefore ready for this moment when the taciturn men of the giant black moustache says

Seventeen dollars.

I look at the guy, he makes the face, and I tell him, look, man, I only got twelve.

And now check this! He doesn't want it! He initially waves the money away. I have to /beg him/ to reconsider, telling him, in effect, this is what I got, take it or leave it, and if you leave it you'll be a whole lot farther from where you were had you taken it. We're walking out, and I'm about to turn right, and fast, and finally he shrugs, says alright, and takes the money.

Hey, at least you're closer.

But he's already gone. And I'm left standing there like a jackass two times over, feeling guilty from a cause I can't name.

I waited to write this because I thought in a week why, after the man behind the counter told me it was 17 for the enfamil, I didn't just put the ten and two singles back in my pocket, take out a 20, and be done with the whole deal. Why half-ass it if you go this far? What formulation did I come up with that resulted in 12 being on the other end of the equals sign?

Well, a week ain't helped, so here I am. Maybe clarity rests in others' eyes.