A few weeks ago, as I approached the entrance to the subway station I use on my way back home after a trip to the gym, I noticed a familiar figure standing by its stairs: a man of indeterminate age who stands at the top step, next to the door for a deli, asking for change from subway passengers and deli customers (his location is strategic and well thought out.) His normal tone of request is never aggressive; just a little plaintive with just the trace of a wheedle. And he is persistent, repeating the same plaint: his down- and-out-ness, his desperate need for the smallest bit–a penny, a dime, a quarter–that anyone can spare to move him along just a bit toward the desired goal of a full stomach.
On this day, his tone was significantly different. He had shifted into a more insistently repetitive tone: his vocal delivery of his plea had become a monotone, delivered once, and then followed up, immediately, with a precise copy on its heels: “Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have; Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have.” And on, and on. Whereas previously, he had only directed this plea to emerging or entering passengers and held his peace otherwise, now it seemed a tripwire had been hit, and he had been catapulted into a new state of being. He now sounded jarring and harsh, and the persistent repetition of his lament was now more invasive. It made me move quicker–past him, down the steps, and into the station. Anything to get away from that Chinese water torture–it was like having a cup with a few coins rattled, again and again, in my face, under my nose, their jingling threatening to unravel me, bit by bit, thread by thread.
As I walked on, I remembered I had never, ever, given that man any of my spare change. I have, over the years, become impervious to the many beseechments that are sent my way in this great city: from those who lie on sidewalks, a cardboard sign detailing the precise state of their misfortunes, economic, personal, or medical; from those who walk into my subway car, announcing the loss of a job or home, the parlous state of their family and children, their hunger, their desperate desire to convince us that the money given out as alms will not be spent on alcohol or drugs. I have, more often than not, simply looked a little closer at the book I have been reading, and turned away. Perhaps I fear charlatans; perhaps I have become numb; perhaps I think my efforts at ‘helping’ are better directed elsewhere.
Now, I had fled from a scene of escalated desperation; I had turned away, again, unable to respond adequately to this nagging reminder of how, in this city with its fortunes and misfortunes, with its too-big-to-process tragedies and comedies, I had let my heart harden just a little.