Barking Up the Wrong Tree

(Originally posted March 30, 2010 on blogspot.)

I am a New Yorker. As a citizen of the Big Apple, I have become accustomed to being asked for money. On the subway, on the corner, in the park- panhandlers are everywhere. Generally, people begging for money on the streets of New York are harmless- a slight nuisance. They ask, you ignore them, the end.

Yesterday, however, I had two encounters with panhandlers that were so aggressive that they went so far as to offend me, and quite honestly, frighten me a little.

Panhandler Number One was approaching people on the R traing into Manhattan from Queens. I was playing Sudoku- medium difficulty- and was making record time. It is usually easy to ignore someone while playing Sudoku on an iPhone. But it’s pretty tough to ignore someone who taps your knee and then puts his hand in your face. “No!” I said, making no effort to hide my disgust. I’m not usually rude to strangers, but seriously. Who did he think he was touching my knee and then asking for money? Don’t worry, I still set a new best time on my Suduko.

Panhandler Number Two came up to me at Starbucks, where I was sitting at a table, working on Ryan’s laptop. “Excuse me, can I just talk to you for a minute?” She then sat down in the booth next to me, trapping me, as I was sitting in the corner. She was crying. (or pretending to) “I’m just trying to get something to eat. Someone just took my luggage from Penn Station. I’m here for my mother’s funeral.” Wow. Talk about rotten luck, eh? Hungry, and your mother died, AND someone stole your luggage?

Under normal circumstances, I would humor an interaction like this, (much to the dismay of anyone who hangs out with me in the city…) and offer advice-suggest she go to the police and report the crime, etc. But my panhandler patience was all used up for the day. And anyway, the woman had managed to slide her hand over my iPhone which rested on the table.

“I am NOT in a position to help you,” I said, yanking my phone out of her hands to emphasize my “not.”

She started to object, then stopped when she saw the look in my eyes. She
moved to the next table, and got through her sob story another three or four times before getting kicked out of the store.

I am not a hardened New Yorker. I would be described by most people who know me well as extremely generous. And I most certainly know what it feels like to fall on hard times. And maybe that’s why it made me so angry. I don’t blame people for being financially needy. And I don’t blame them for being desperate. But what upsets me so much is the way they assume they need the money more than I do. Yes, I’m sitting at a Starbucks. Yes, I have an iPhone and a laptop and a Vera Bradley bag. But they have no idea what my situation is like. (They also don’t know that the bag was a gift, and the computer is borrowed…)

I have friends who made twelve thousand dollars last year and are in serious financial trouble. I have friends who made over a hundred thousand dollars last year and are in serious trouble. So for anyone who likes to make decisions about people’s ability to help- whether you’re a bleeding heart or a tea partier or a subway crazy- do me a favor. Save it.

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