I wrote a while back:
The thing I like least about New York is that you have to harden your heart to panhandlers. I live near a “hotel” for very-low-income men. There’s always several on the street, especially at night. There’s a young woman who sits in a subway station, reading, with a sign, “unemployed and pregnant.” I want to give money to each of them–but if I did, I’d go broke in an evening. So I am doing that don’t-make-eye-contact thing, ignoring another human being as I pass him on the street. I don’t like that.
My friend, the poet and Dean of the spoken word scene, Bob Holman, shared a Ginsberg story with me recently. . . walking down the street, Allen said something to the effect that:
“You may give money to a beggar, or not give money to a beggar.
“But don’t always give money and don’t always not give money.
“What you always do is make eye contact and acknowledge your mutual humanity.”
That was just what I needed to hear.
So much of life is about human contact. It’s very easy to be lonely in a city of millions of people, homeless or homed, employed or not. Ignoring people on the street–people who approached me–gnawed at me. I’m such an all or nothing person. I can’t give money to everyone, so ignore them all (as so many do). And, to be honest, when you’re on your own in New York, sometimes the only people who talk to you are asking for money.
But I just didn’t know how to deal with it.
And then Allen to Bob to David to me: a practical, balanced, human way to handle these encounters. I found it liberating. The part of my heart that was closing off reopened.
While I was still living in New York this spring (I got back to Indiana Tuesday morning), some days I’d have some extra change, or a few singles, in my pocket, was prepared to give, and was happy to do so. Giving away money is enjoyable for me (so is spending it, which may be related to the lowness of my savings and net worth).
When I didn’t have extra money, or my inner sense was this was the day or the moment to give, I’d follow Allen’s advice.
Make eye contact. “Sorry, man, I can’t help you tonight.” (Sometimes I wanted to confess, “I’ve been in New York for five months and spent all my money and am living on credit cards!”)
Almost always, he (or, less often, it was a she) would . . . thank me. More than once, I got back a smile and a reassuring “that’s OK.”
Yep, the street guy reassuring me. Acknowledge your mutual humanity. It works both ways.
I gotta go read some Ginsberg.