The One With the Clarinet

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:

Yep, she's playing a saw. And she's really good at it!

Yep, she’s playing a saw. And she’s really good at it.


and some are not.

They were amazing.




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! 



  1. Can I just say that I LOVE this post? And it sort of kind of in a way goes with my post today. In a round about way. There are so many out there with their hands out and it is hard to determine who and what to give to—-I think you changed your mind this time at the right time. It’s hard to know but he affirmed your writing so he “gets” it. Lovely post today! Definitely sharing!!! Thanks!


  2. Aw, lovely post 🙂 I also decided not to give money to people on the streets here. Most of the time 😉 I’ve seen some old men that just look so sad and look like they might have had happier lives once – they look out of place begging on the streets. Riga doesn’t allow begging in the old part of the city – tourist, y’know. But they allow it outside the churches. So you’ll pass 15 old ladies in a row with little cups. It makes it impossible. In that case, it’s everyone or no-one.


  3. I’ve encountered that clarinet player on the train, too, playing My Favorite Things! I don’t donate to anyone on the train, but I did consider doing so in his case. He had a very handsome payday playing in my car. I feel very lucky that I haven’t encountered the guys breakdancing inside the cars. I don’t welcome getting kicked in the head. But I might donate to them, if it would encourage them to move away from me.


    1. I guess the clarinet player’s turf is the 1 train. 🙂
      Those breakdancing, acrobatic kids always scare the bejeezus out of me, but I’ve never seen them hit anyone, which is astonishing, actually.


  4. A tricky topic. I’m as torn as you are on the matter. I can’t ever remember giving on the metro/subway/tube, because I must confess, I feel harassed, annoyed (and also guilty) every time someone passes. I feel like I’m a ‘captive audience’, and that produces resentment in me. I do give sometimes, but generally in the street, where I feel that it’s my free choice. Not sure if this makes sense…


    1. It totally makes sense to me. Sometimes when I’m on the subway, after a long and frustrating day at work, I just want to escape in a good book or listen to some music on my commute home rather than listen to a mariachi band. Then I have dark thoughts and then I feel guilty that I had those dark thoughts. I don’t want to donate from feelings of guilt.


  5. Oh, so good, Jackie! Love how this ended.
    I have to give to musicians because I know how much they struggle to make ends meet. So often they’re creating such beauty and swallowing their pride in the process. Gotta respect that.


    1. Your comment reminded me of how often I donate to musicians when I see them around town. There’s one woman who plays the violin near the farmer’s market. She’s terrific. People actually applaud when she finishes a song. I always leave something in her case.


  6. I understand the going back and forth in making your decision, and when you finally did, there was someone who broke your resolve. I’ve done that many times, here in South Florida. There are “beggars” who stand on the medians at major intersections with handwritten signs hanging from their necks or waving in front of them. Sometimes there is one or two, but I’ve seen four of them at the same intersection on occasion. I did give a dollar on a couple of occasions. What turned the tide for me, was when a police car came along, spoke to the beggar and went on his way. The beggar crossed to the sidewalk, pulled out his cell phone and was speaking to someone when the light changed and I had to make my left turn. Amazing! Even beggars have cell phones!


    1. I’ve seen those guys who walk between the cars at a stoplight. Here, they’re usually selling water or juice (at a mark up of course). I’m always worried that they’re going to get clipped by one of the cars!


  7. Nice post, Jackie! I don’t have a rule – I go by gut instinct each time. If the person seems genuine, and is not aggressive or irritating, I usually give something. But you’re right that it’s usually people who look like they can’t afford it who start digging into their pockets, while the well-heeled passengers keep their gaze firmly fixed somewhere else. Have noticed exactly the same thing myself.


    1. I’ve also noticed that the people who have an artistic component usually fare better than the ones just asking for money. Today a man recited his poetry (from memory) and a lot of passengers reached into their pockets.
      Thanks for your comment Andrew. Hope all is well in Greece.


  8. How beautiful to make a connection between two artists – I love how this story turned out. I don’t take public transportation enough to have a rule, but when I still lived in Paris there was the neighborhood homeless man who I would give food (and flowers when I bought myself a bouquet) to. For some reason, I felt more comfortable giving him food than money – not being sure what he was going to do with the money. But maybe that was me treating him like he was irresponsible. It’s a tough decision sometimes. Lovely post.


      1. I will let you know! I think I will read it in September – my list of books to read has gotten a bit shorter as I’ve been on holiday but I’m still catching up as I’m sure you’re familiar with 🙂


  9. It’s so hard to give to everyone. There are a few cases when I break my rule as well. It’s good to have rules and it’s nice to break them occasionally. And it’s wonderful to be able to support a fellow artist. That’s always a good bond.


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