One of my favorite things about living in the city is traveling by subway. I’ve never been a fan of driving, so I love handing off the challenge of getting me where I need to go to someone else while I nap or read. To visit a friend in Park Slope from Astoria means a full hour uninterrupted book time, guilt-free – it’s not like I could be productive in some other way.
Of course, one of my least favorite things about living in the city is traveling by subway. It’s smelly, it’s unreliable, and at 2am, you don’t want to be forced off your current train to wait for another because of construction.
What I hate most is the soliciting, which I’m pretty sure is illegal but that doesn’t stop anyone. I’m just trying to get to work, or home after a long day, and I don’t want to feel bad about myself because a homeless person wants my money and I just want to read my book. I once was in a subway car that had three consecutive beggars: one got off and the next got on, announcing his or her sob story.
How do you decide who is the most worthy? If you give to one, how do you not give to the next? If it is in fact illegal, are you just making the situation worse by giving? Yes, sometimes I have an apple in my bag. But it’s for my lunch. If I give it to you, what will I eat? I’m living on a budget too, I can’t afford to eat out all the time. But clearly I’m better off than you, so am I selfish for hoarding my apple?
Riding the train is like Dante constantly taunting you: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”
And yet, I don’t give money to the mother with multiple sclerosis, the kids selling candy bars to keep themselves “off the streets,” the old men who mumble such that I can’t even understand their pleas for help. There are so many, and I’m just one person – without a job myself – and it’s just incredibly overwhelming. It’s so much easier to shut down, turn up your iPod, and bury your head in your book.
I paid for my ticket. Can’t I just get home in peace?
Better or worse? That’s the question when it comes to the “entertainers” who bombard you on the subway. The DoWoppers, the Mariachi bands, the acrobats, the one-man traveling bands complete with sound system. I appreciate that they are at least trying to offer some service in return for my money, but – I didn’t ask to be entertained. I have a Blackberry and an iPod. I don’t need my ears blown out or my head kicked in by breakdancers who shouldn’t be bouncing around upside down in a crowded subway car.
I like buskers in general. I like them in subway stations, in parks. I like when they stand still and I get to approach them if I’m interested in listening, chatting, or giving money. I can still remember a night two years ago standing on the 59th Street platform waiting for a train and listening to a classical guitarist named Matt Nichols pluck the melancholy strings of my little beat-up soul. It was lovely. Magical even.
Of course, I didn’t give him money either. I would have bought his CD, but my train came. I probably didn’t have any cash on me at the time anyway. It’s actually one of the main reasons I try not to have cash in New York. So then I’m not lying if someone asks if I have any spare change.
Excuses, excuses. Maybe I am just a bad person.
I was recently on a subway car when a man starting proselytizing about issues like fracking, nuclear power, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He wasn’t asking for money, just trying to raise awareness. He had pamphlets with information on these topics and how to get involved. I was appreciative that he was so passionate about improving our country. I was contemplating taking a pamphlet, but as he approached me so few people had even looked at him that he spoke the kiss of death: “I’m amazed by the apathy and the isolation.”
And I went back to reading my book. Someone should tell him this is a terrible public relations strategy. Be careful when unleashing your self-righteous rage. I might agree with you, but don’t think I’m going to support your cause when you insult me. When you interrupt my commute by yelling at me. Don’t try to shame me into being a better person. I have my own problems, mister.
I just want to get home.
My question is: once someone makes you aware of their need, are you morally obligated to try to fix it, if you have any means to do so? Am I fating myself to a sunburn of eternal proportions by avoiding eye contact with the less fortunate? Does my right to a safe and peaceful trip home end at someone else’s right to try to feed themselves? Do I erode my soul every time I fail to give?