A man shuffled through my subway car. “Hi. My name is Sonny Payne. I’m homeless and I’m hungry,” he repeated like a mantra as he tried to dodge the standing-room-only crowd. “If you don’t have it, I can understand because I don’t have it. But if you have a dime, a nickel, or a piece of fruit, please help.” I know his spiel like I know my address.
Sonny Payne isn’t the only person on the subway asking for money. I’ve been approached by a variety of people, including but not limited to: A blind man with a white walking stick who deftly skirted around a bike messenger without missing a step. A woman who said she lost all of her belongings in a fire. Talented singers, accordion players, and doo-wop groups. Teenagers doing Le Cirque-esque tricks on the center poles. Men who outright admit that they’ll be using your donation to buy a bottle of Southern Comfort at the next bodega they stumble across. But a long time ago I made it a policy not to give money to people on the subway.
I figured that I could just make the decision and I wouldn’t have to think about it again. This way I’d ease any guilt I might feel in the process. Because, I thought, if I gave to one, I’d be reaching into my pocket constantly for change. I’m not pretending these people don’t need my change more than I do. But if I were to break my standing rule, who gets it? Do I then have to give money to every Sonny Payne I meet or, for that matter, every time I meet Sonny Payne?
Every once in a while I start to rethink my position. Not long ago, a man with torn clothes, but not all together unkempt came through the subway car with his baseball cap extended for donations. “Just a penny. A penny will do. A penny. A penny,” he said as if he was composing a song. At first I wasn’t moved to contribute. A woman across from me began making the standard maneuvers to find change— shifting in her seat, reaching deep into her purse. The man paused, not wanting to assume or be pushy, but anxious to move on. Time is money.
I noticed something I’ve suspected to be true, but hadn’t really brought to conscious thought before. It seems, more often than not, the people giving money don’t seem to be in a position to give. They’re not the ones carrying smart leather briefcases, tapping away on their iPhones. They’re wearing paint-splattered jeans and hard hats. Their hands are callused and scraped. Maybe the ones who appear to have less know what it’s like to need it more. The pangs of guilt I’d always hoped to avoid chimed loudly.
The man waited patiently for the woman still digging through her purse. Like someone who’d lost her keys she kept trying the same pocket over and over as if change would magically appear. The train came to a stop at the next station, his cue to move on to the next car, but she was still searching. His head hung low, maybe debating the further loss of dignity of continuing to wait while she grabbed at crumbs and empty wrappers. “That’s all right, miss. You can get me next time.” He continued down the aisle. “Just a penny. A penny will do…” By the time I considered getting my wallet, it was too late. He was on the platform, and the doors had closed.
Then yesterday morning, I’d been lucky enough to grab a seat. As many of you know, I write during my commute. I was embroiled in my latest novel when a man hopped into my subway car just as the doors closed. He was holding a clarinet. Buskers are not uncommon on the subway. Some are “sanctioned” by the transit authority through a program called Music Under New York:
and some are not.
The buskers who work the train cars are typically not part of Music Under New York. That’s why they work the cars; it’s harder to get caught. The clarinet player warmed up a bit and then launched into this song:
It was a beautiful rendition, clear and crisp. He had certainly received lessons or trained for years. He swayed back and forth in time with his eyes closed. I watched him for a moment, my pen poised over the paper, and I felt a connection–a passion for the work we were creating, separately but together. We were both tapping into a creative spark, different means to the same end. He finished the song and passed through the car to collect donations.
This time I was ready. I put my change into his hat. He winked and said, “Keep on writing.”
Was there a time you had a change of heart?
Have a great weekend, everyone!