Conversations With A Beggar

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I had an interesting chat with a beggar today.

Perhaps “beggar” is a label lacking sensitivity, but beggar is exactly what this gentleman called himself. I think his approval on the matter is as legitimate as it gets.

I find myself in conversation with beggars more frequently than you might  think. If I’m wandering downtown and I’m feeling bored enough or high enough it is likely to happen. This particular encounter was worth writing about. I had been wandering downtown Somerville pondering where I wanted to eat, wandering without any particular destination or sense of urgency. The night was young and I was indecisive.

Like a couple who ruins a double date with ridiculous bickering, my id and superego ruin my nights eating out with ridiculous self-analysis. My internal monologue becomes a combat zone. The argument is about money and ethics and willpower and more often than not invokes Benjamin Franklin’s quote “a penny saved is a penny earned”.

My superego strongly believes that going out to eat is a waste of money. The superego acknowledges that I don’t make much money and that I need to live on a budget. If there is food at home to eat, there is no logical reason to go out. If there is no food at home to eat, than it is time to go grocery shopping. There is never a logical reason to go out to eat (unless someone else is paying for it, of course).

“But I feel like it” asserted my id.

“‘I feel like it’ is not a good reason to do anything”, countered my superego. “Sometimes I feel like slapping my friends when they say stupid shit. I don’t. But I certainly feel like it. Part of the burden of being human is feeling like doing all sorts of stupid stuff all of the time. Having the urge to do something in and of itself is not a justification to do that something. Sure you feel like going out to eat, but the result of doing so is that you have less money than if you ate at home, but you’re no more full or satisfied. Going out to eat is an illogical decision made by lazy people.”

“But I am illogical and being lazy feels awesome” the id said flatly.

That’s when a I noticed a squatting man in his mid 50s by the entrance of a Starbucks, he was looking at me

“Spare some cash for a meal? I don’t drink and I don’t smoke.”

Usually, I decline the requests of beggars. I do this for one reason, I don’t believe them. I’d like to think that if my travels ever carried me into a situation where a starving person asked me for food, I would give them food. It’s the decent thing to do. But as I’ve never been to a third world nation, I’ve never actually met a beggar who looked starving. This man was no exception. Yet today I choose not to ignore him. Why? My logic was this: If I can waste money on a going out to eat, I can at least spare this guy a dollar. This decision satisfied my superego’s need to feel like a charitable citizen, and my id’s need to blow my money away at every possible opportunity. I gave him a dollar.

He looked at me and said “Oh come on man, could you spare 5?”.

My initial and internal reaction was “Really bro? I don’t have to give you any dollars at all, take whats given to you and be happy about it”.

But this initial reaction was immediately contradicted by a much more rational thought. Why the heck shouldn’t he ask for more? The dollar I offered was already in his hand, I certainly wasn’t going to take it back and he knew that. The worst outcome that could come from his upsell was that he keeps the dollar he already has, the best outcome was that he gets more money. His question was a logical move. It was sound game theory.

My initial shock to his bold request had now turned to curiosity. “How often did this technique work?” I wondered.

So I asked him. And he told me that upping the ante sometimes worked, particularly if people were in a good mood. He stressed that he is always sure to tell people that he only uses the money for food, never for drinking and never for smoking. Then he mentioned something that piqued my curiosity even further. He said “You know, I’m a conservative so I don’t believe in asking the government for food stamps.”

 

I found this character trait to be very ironic, and immediately decided to challenge this conservative value of his. There are hundreds of corporate executives who make untold millions of dollars per year. The amount of money required to fund this man’s food stamps is flat-out negligible in the shadow of the monstrous amount money that is available in the American economy. I explained these points to him.

As he responded he continued to make eye contact with passerbys. He admitted that he held one exception to his anti-food stamp belief system. If someone uses food stamps as a way to better themselves, as a way to achieve some social mobility, than their use was acceptable. “Foodstamps are okay if you use them to reach your potential”.

“Why don’t you use food stamps to reach your potential?” I asked, in as non-judgemental of a tone as possible.

He continued to make eye contact with passerbys, there was a notable pause before he answered.

“I dunno”, he said briefly.

Before I could think of how to respond he changed the subject. “Do you see that cop over there”, he pointed to a police cruiser parked across the street “I think they are recording our conversation right now”.

I doubted whether the conversations of a beggar were truly a concern for the Somerville police department.

“Why would they do that?” I asked.

He said he used to beg in Cambridge and had never been bothered there, but since he moved his begging spot to Somerville he had been bothered twice by police. The police told him that begging was illegal in Somerville. He told me he planned to keep begging until they actually did something about it. “I’ve been begging for 15 years, 15 years I’ve been telling people no drinks no smoke. No one has stopped me yet”.

15 years. That’s a job. That’s a career. I asked if he was homeless, he responded that he was not. He lived at an elderly home for the disabled. I asked what his disability was. Was this too private of a topic for two people who had just met on the street only moments before?

Perhaps it was. His answer was distant and impersonal “That’s a good question. Maybe schizophrenia or something neurological. I’ve got something going on with my eyes too. I dunno”. It was becoming clear to me that my questions were disrupting him from a task, he was a man with a job to do, he had a living to earn. I was sticking around too long.

He said to a passerby “Spare some cash for a meal? No drinking no smoking.”

He was a salesman. Our business was done and he had other business to attend to.

I told him I didn’t want to interrupt his work any more and said goodbye. He gave no signs to acknowledge my departure. As I walked away I heard him again shoot his pitch to a potential customer. “Spare some cash for a meal?” No drinking no smoking?”.

I wandered a bit more until I finally decided on Chipotle. Why would I drop 8 dollars on a burrito (actually 10 with guacamole, another victory for the id) when I could have saved that money and just ate at home? I dunno.

 

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