Begging for an Answer

Why kick a man when he’s down?

By Frank Melcori

I left for work early the other day because I wanted that extra half hour to look at CDs. The buses were first slow and then late.

As I paced the corner, the wind picked up and gray skies dropped lower. A spit of rain splashed my face. I stood on Halsted Street, looking up through the telephone wires. Here comes the bodhisattva, as the Buddhists say, the clouds like a robe billowing round his head, a smile informing his almost insane and acrobatic function. “Uh-oh, I’m gonna get it!” I turn my shoulder to the slanting drizzle.

The damn bus finally gets there, but the driver takes her time pulling up to the stop. I pay the fare and still hope to collect that half hour downtown. But she sits through a light and then another one. I squirm and curse in my seat as the rain puddles on my body.

I transfer to the Orange Line, and I’m daydreaming as we pull into the Roosevelt stop. My brooding is interrupted by a high-pitched and lispy voice. I turn and see a beggar, a man dressed in his worn-out cool.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t mean to bother you and I don’t mean no harm. None of that. It’s just, as you can see, that I’m the victim of some bad circumstances. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, some bad circumstances. Please help me if you can. Anything will help. Please, ladies and gentlemen. God bless you.”

I’m looking at him curiously, performer to performer. He comes to me and stops. I give him some change. I can’t say I always do. His smile is gap-toothed and grateful. “God bless you, sir. God bless you.” Even if it’s a fraud, a few cents for a “God bless you” is always worth it.

In other countries people pay beggars for exactly that. He seems to be who he says he is…bad circumstances. He moves on to the next car, and I ride along, the city spread out before me, gray in the rain. What’s that old joke? What’s a mile long and has a thousand assholes?

My stop comes and I’m off the el and down the ramp when I hear a commotion. I retrace my steps to find a large security guard dressed like Darth Vader holding a muzzled and barking German shepherd against the beggar who was just on the train. The guard bullied and scared that beggar down the steps. I blinked. Those old TV clips of the civil rights marchers in Alabama hopped through my mind, those images of the police using dogs against the marchers. “Whoa! Where are we?” I said to no one in particular.

The beggar tried to protest. He wanted to stay. The guard kept the dog on him. “Go on! Get out! Get all the way down there! Get out!” The guard moved slowly down the steps as the beggar pleaded and tried to hold his ground. The guard bellowed and used the dog, forcing the beggar into the street and onto a bus. As the guard walked back into the station with his dog, he looked me in the eye. I stared back, confused and mortified at my own cowardice. Was that behavior necessary? A thousand assholes indeed! He can probably quote statistics about how much violence is avoided by the use of dogs, but that guard abused his power and enjoyed abusing it. You could only describe that as cowardly. We should be ashamed, setting dogs against people.

Later that day, as I walked home on Halsted, I wondered why we’re bothered by beggars. Are we afraid of them or angered by them? Is it because they represent a failure in our system, a reminder that no one is secure? Beggars exist the world over, and each culture has its rationalizations. In a bottom-line culture like ours, the judgment seems particularly harsh. We tend to view them as freeloaders, people who prefer to be living in the streets as opposed to working and leading responsible lives. There are exceptions, of course, but I can’t imagine anyone actually choosing to beg or enjoying it. I can’t imagine anyone choosing to sleep on a sidewalk.

I remembered reading one of Oliver Sacks’s books recounting case histories of patients with neurological disorders, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The truth of that man’s experience seemed much stranger than any absurdist fiction in modern literature. But if we were to put all the beggars in the city onstage, we would find their assembled reality much more to the point than any play. The best of them, they can tell you things.

As I was thinking this through, a panhandler shuffled by. He was wearing faded sports clothing with tongueless basketball shoes. He looked to be a bit of a wino and, it turns out, he was heading toward a liquor store. There he was, the noble beggar I had just eulogized. He turned toward me, and I stood there. Ignoring my noble thoughts, he walked unsteadily across the street, unaware of the traffic. I wanted a drink just about then too.