I recently moved to Central Harlem from Astoria, Queens. This move was based on my rent going up and my apartment not getting any nicer despite the number of bugs and leaks that perked up each morning. Some say that gets me closer to nature – I say it gets me closer to leaving my neighborhood.
One of the inevitabilities of taking the New York subway is that you will run into panhandlers. There is a warning on the 4/5 line that says in no uncertain terms that it is illegal to panhandle on the subway, but for some strange reason I’ve never seen anyone get in trouble. That’s not true, on one spring day two years ago, I was lucky enough to be in the subway car with two police officers when a nice blind man with a coffee cup walked through the door between the cars asking for money. The two officers told him to knock it off and he was on his way.
So that was one time, and then the other 19,432 times no one seems to care. Now that I’m in Harlem, it seems like the presence of begging for money has escalated 15-fold. It’s sort of like when you step on the subway you’re expecting SOMEONE to beg for SOMETHING, you just don’t know who or what. These group of money-seeker-outers come in different forms. First up, we have the world famous subway dancers – I know it’s not panhandling, but it is people asking for money. Some of them are good, most of them are decent, and all of them almost kick me when I try and get out of the way. They’re always yelling ‘It’s Showtime, ladies gentleman!’ and I want to yell back ‘it’s you still not having a job that requires a shirt’ time – but I don’t. The dancers are followed closely by the candy people, who want you to know that they’re not selling drugs. You have to feel sorry for people whose primary marketing message is that they’re not selling drugs. I want to tell them that 50 Cent didn’t get where he is today by selling nutrition bars on the subway, but I feel like that might be the wrong message.
After the candy people come the people representing a homeless organization who are looking for money, food, or prayers. I don’t even give them prayers, that’s how lazy I am. They are the ones who apologize for the interruption but will take anything that I’ve got – which happens to be nothing, so we’re all good. After them are the people who I think are missing the point. They are the ones who don’t really have a purpose. They are – I dare say – junkies who might want to audition for local theater because they have their lines memorized pretty well. They’re from the neighborhood and they just got laid off and their wives are in surgery and they just need a dime, a nickel, or a smile. I have to believe that there is some type of government organization that can help them out before they get a pamphlet in the mail that says ‘ For more assistance, please go beg for it on the subway. Sincerely, Mayor Bloomberg.’
The good news is, all is not lost in the world of subway begging. About a month ago I was riding the 2/3 into town and I hear a guy yelling about something, and while I’m used to it – I got a little nervous. But then, as I listened, I realized he was telling jokes, and while they’re weren’t fall-on-your ass funny, the guy had a good 5 minute stand-up routine, and even had some of us laughing hesistantly. I didn’t have any money to give him, but it was the most original and entertaining way of begging for money that I’ve seen. I was hoping to have one of those ‘Ted Williams’ moment where I find the homeless guy who happens to have a real gift for something and then becomes famous for a week before blowing his newly found fortune on coke and whores. Instead, I was worried he might mug me if I said hi, so I exited at 96th st.