Growing up in Morocco, each family had their own “beggar” they looked after. Our beggar, a courteous middle-aged man dressed poorly but with elaborate dignity, would sit silently on our steps every Thursday night, waiting for my mother to resurface from her kitchen and come out to him. And every Thursday night we watched the same dance between them: Her meeting him on the steps with steaming food she had just prepared for Shabbos and bags of clothes, and him protesting she really shouldn’t have, he is really all set, all he really wanted was sit on the steps and smell her delicious food cooking……. You have guessed it: We gave to the poor personally, directly, regularly, wholeheartedly. And sent them to school and to the doctor: In turn we received their thanks and blessings, and sometimes their curses (I remember one yelling at my mother “Don’t you know by now I HATE striped shirts???”) In short, we had a relationship.
This must be why, G-d forgive me, I have never warmed up to any of the hustlers that harangue tourists at the Kotel, or sit at the entrance of catering halls, bowl in hand, or wait every morning for congregants to come out of schul, or for that matter, those who hold a store or restaurant door open for you at a suggested price, or who sit right by the campus where they likely graduated not so long ago, or who circulate a greasy letter claiming they are having a kidney removed (or was it a daughter getting married? Oy they can’t remember which letter they grabbed that morning) ….. Give to the poor, I say over and over, not to the shnorrer; look for those that are too poor to make ends meet and too ashamed to ask, there are lots of them!
Last week I surprised myself when on a subway trip to Brooklyn I had very different encounters, in rapid succession, with three paupers that jolted me, each in his own way, out of my customary feistiness toward panhandlers.
The first one was a young, handsome and well-dressed Latin man with no arms, impassibly – and precariously – “holding up” a huge cardboard sign with his arm stumps. The sign was written in oversize red bold print letters an said: “I recently lost my arms in a car accident. With the money I am hoping to collect, I will have prosthesis surgery so I can have my arms back and go on with my daily work”. I found myself not only giving him and wishing him best of luck, but … yes, crying, and praying to meet him again soon, on his way to or from work, reading the newspaper he would be holding with his brave new hands.
The second one, encountered a minute later inside the train, favored a more businesslike style. I should tell you it was the morning the tsunami hit Japan. Tall and bearded, he was dragging what seemed to be most of his belongings in a black trash bag, and he stopped from one passenger to another, talking with great urgency, as if he was conducting a seminar: “Any of us could lose all they own in one minute. Look what just happened in Japan. Help me so someone will help you when you need help!” He looked and sounded like someone out of a Rudyard Kipling story, maybe The Man Who Would Be King. We know how the story ends, but for now he was quite convincing, and all in all today looked like one of his lucky days ….
The third one belonged to the group I have always had the greatest problem with: the well-dressed middle-aged man carrying a suitcase, settled at the entrance of a supermarket or other place meant to make consumers feel they have a lot to be thankful for, holding up a mountain of dollar bills so you get the right idea (and the right inspiration: get it?): the one I like to yell at, get off to work like we all do! You should be ashamed of yourself! But this one, instead of retreating or even shouting back at me, launched into an organized and poised argument, along the lines of, how do you know what I do with my life and what goes on in my life (he’s right, I don’t: I only know what he is displaying about himself) which made me even more impatient: See, I kept telling him, see how smart you are? Why don’t you go to work? And left him in a huff….. and came back to him in a huff …. and gave him a few bucks in a huff….. But he still glowered at me and shook his head disapprovingly at me. No, you can’t win them all!