Bark, Hide, and Horn--"Change It" (mp3)
The crowd walks briskly in both directions on Wabash Avenue. One man has found a corner, where he can also catch the foot traffic coming up Van Buren. He dances a little, he shakes a plastic cup with some change in it. He holds up a sign: "I'm not gonna lie; it's for beer."
Rewind: the crowd walks briskly in both directions on Wabash Avenue. One man has found a corner, where he can also catch the foot traffic coming up Van Buren. He dances a little, he shakes a plastic cup with some change in it. He holds up a sign: "Please help me take my daughter to see Harry Potter."
Rewind: the crowd walks briskly in both directions on Wabash Avenue. One man has found a corner, where he can also catch the foot traffic coming up Van Buren. He dances a little, he shakes a plastic cup with some change in it. He holds up a sign: "Sorry, folks, but spare change just isn't gonna do it. I need bills, preferably at least a $5."
Fast Forward: later that same day, I was on the "L," riding back toward town from my brother's and a guy comes through the car, an ex-Marine, asking for money. The well-dressed guy next to me mutters, "Yesterday, he was in the Army."
If "being hustled" means being asked for money, then I was "hustled" many times yesterday on the streets and trains of Chicago. Beer, bus fare, a man walking with a little girl who just wanted money for some food. And, no, I'm not some saint with deep pockets who doles out cash to all comers. Sometimes I gave, sometimes I didn't.
But I do think the basic situation here needs some reconsideration. When it comes to sharing what we have and need or don't need with strangers we have so many voices in our heads and we probably have no system for deciding which one we listen to at any given time. Start with the classic "He's just going to use it for alcohol or drugs." Support or counter it with Biblical passages that either advocate sharing with others or that acknowledge that the poor will always be with us. Add little scrutiny of your own behaviors--do you short the tab when it's a group check and not worry about it? do you bum a cigarette from a stranger but never give a handout to one? What about your upbringing? Did your mom caution you never to talk to strangers? Never to pick up hitchhikers? Do you wonder if that guy by the interstate really is a vet who has lost his way and whose country owes him something? Have you given food to the supposedly hungry, only to find out that they took your food and threw it in the trash because they really wanted your money, not your food? Or, did you give your unwanted canned goods to the Food Bank? Does that put a check beside your giving box?
I guess, most important of all, do we have one or two extreme situations from the past that we use to chart our actions in all future encounters? I mean, yes, I've been hassled, I've been lied to, I've been scared. Do I base my actions on the past?
Times are different, and they are hard. I see that more in a large city like Chicago. This isn't the Thirties. Somebody can't just hop a train to get around, they can't hitchhike, they have no hope of knocking on a stranger's door and being invited in for a warm meal. And change isn't a spare as it used to be, and you can't buy a damn thing for a quarter anyway. Often, I don't carry money at all--instead I'm laden with credit cards, gift cards, passes for public transportation. I know I could walk up to an ATM and take out money for somebody, but that's usually farther than I'm willing to go. Once, only once, did I go that far.
And what about the other person's shoes? Have any of us ever had to beg for money? Do we have any idea what that feels like? I don't. But I have had to stand on the side of a busy Santa Cruz road at morning rush hour and literally beg for a ride to a bus station where a friend had taken my car en route to a potentially-suicidal act. It is not fun, it is not uplifting to have to beg for a stranger's assistance.
I have no solution for what to do when a man or a woman stops me on the street and asks for money. I'm inclined to give it if I have it; I've long since stopped worrying about what that person is going to do with it. Probably take their daughter to see Harry Potter. But I do think that we, as a society, need to do some reconsideration, maybe some recalibration, about how we behave towards those who are having to do without. Right now, in a city with 4 million workers, 400,000 of them don't have jobs.