Sometimes I play the game, “Drop Me in the World.” It’s a game I made up of course, and it is played entirely in my own mind. Drop me at any random location in the world: side of the road in Nicaragua, Red Square Moscow, island in Malaysia, corner of 59th and Columbus NYC, with no money, no phone, no contact list, just what I can carry on my back, and what would I do? Where would I stay the first night? What would I eat? Where would I start in building a new life, finding work, finding money, shelter, food? Who would I approach for help and what would my pitch be? What type of sign would beget the best results for begging on a street corner – which corner would be best, locally trafficked or tourist trafficked? You get the idea… you start from scratch and build a theoretical new life step by step in chosen location. I think there is an extreme survival TV show version of this game, where they drop someone off on top of a glacier, middle of the desert, deserted island and they have 72 hours to make it to civilization – the show is called Dude You’re Screwed.
I’ve discovered a new survival option that happens inside New York subway cars – in my mind I call it oratory begging. Once the train doors close, a person steps to the middle of the car and begins a speech: about how they are in troubled times, have suffered a loss, have children to support and would like to call on the humanity of all those listening to help in any way they can. They are typically very articulate, decently clothed and well groomed. The stories involve elements of things familiar to most people – rent or mortgages, job instability, family obligations. They are down and out, but down and out in a highly socialized way. They often point out they were once just like us, until something happened and they fell of the track.
Today when the doors closed, a 40 something man, thin, Kelly blue polo shirt and black pants, began his speech: “I – am a person. Who – believes – sometimes you must do what you need to do. And that – is why – I – am here today in front of you.” Everyone was silent because it is always a little uncomfortable to be trapped in a confined space with someone who is begging from you, but today I think the car was silent because this man, obviously a trained orator, had a BEAUTIFUL voice. He sounded part Southern Preacher, but less dramatic and more refined, like a professor, or public speaker, or actor who might be called as a back up when Sidney Poitier wasn’t available. He sounded like a man who would recount the foraging habits of the North American black-tailed prairie dog on a PBS show, or some quintessential fatherly voice whose insight and knowledge would make any childhood problem vanish into thin air and hugs.
I’ve also discovered, during confined oratory begging, you can feel the collective uncomfortableness of the other passengers, right along side the collective desire to help. Both are palpable, in equal proportions. Another game I play in my mind is called “Start It.” I suppose it is more of a sociology experiment, but in these situations I like to break the giving ice and be the first to put a dollar in the bucket, not so much because I think my dollar will really help this man, but because I want to see how many people will follow suit once someone makes giving collectively acceptable. Today I gave my dollar to Cub, who was entranced by his oratory (and probably secretly thinking “that man would really rock Good Night Moon with that beautiful voice”). She’s at a stage where she really likes to put things in… and take things out. She reached up and put the dollar in his cup. And then the lady next to me gave a dollar, and another girl across the car gave. I’m not sure how much he made off our car, or what his real story is, or what life he led that groomed such a beautiful voice, but it felt good to give and like good parenting to be the ice breaker. At the next stop the doors opened and he was gone, and in my mind I thought to myself “I too – am a person – who believes – that sometimes you have to start it. And let others draft off your intentional courage.”
Helped carry stroller on stairs downtown: Latino man, young forties, fit, heather grey T-shirt and jeans, large diamond stud in ear. Started down stairs next to me, stopped, came back up a stair and lifted the other side of the stroller without even asking if I needed help.
Helped carry stroller on stairs uptown: Weather was beautiful so we walked.
Tip of the Day: when you gather your things in the morning – metro card, phone, etc. – make sure to put a few dollar bills in a handy place. There are amazing musicians you may encounter, or oratory beggars, or who knows what and you will want a dollar ready to give. This is for you more than them. If the money is handy you can guiltlessly enjoy the music without having to rifle around in your bag looking for a dollar as the train pulls up. You will be more present in the moment, and I just read a quote that said “no one has ever become poor from giving.”