Why Do I Give on the Subway?

In New York, as in other cities, evidence of the disparity between haves and have-nots is everywhere.

It happens to most of us who live in New York City. You’re on the subway scrolling through a dozen emails, and then you hear the guy coming down through the car (and it’s usually a guy). Sometimes he’s walking, sometimes he’s in a wheelchair, navigating between poles and riders’ feet. He’s rattling a cup of change. The words come haltingly, or not: “I hate to bother you, but I need money to get a room tonight,” or a meal or something for the kids because there was a fire or flood or financial disaster.

You’re sure it’s a fiction, but the guy looks so bad or smells so bad that you know there’s something wrong, even if he’s not wearing the wrist band they gave him last time he checked into the emergency room. You would rather keep staring at your phone or your tablet, but you don’t want to become hardhearted. If you’re a Christian, like I am, you remember how Jesus said that when you feed the hungry or clothe the naked, doing it for “the least of these,” you’re doing it for him.

I keep a few singles in a pocket for just such occasions, and I can extract them without exposing the bigger bills in my wallet. “You’re just feeding a drug habit,” a friend of mine says. He’s a 12-step-program veteran, so he should know. “I’m willing to take the risk,” I say. After all, how much dope or drink can you get with a buck?

I usually have an energy bar in my briefcase. That seems a safer alternative. But sometimes it can be pretty insensitive. I remember giving a woman a rock-hard, nut-filled nutrition bar only to notice that she hardly had the teeth to chew it. How generous was that?

I make my paltry donation and generally ask for a name. “Here’s something, Charles.” The response is almost universal, even in a city that prides itself on its skepticism. “God bless you,” the recipients say — convincingly or not.

But is that why I’m doing this? To be blessed? Or is it so that I can go back to my digital devices with some measure of peace, my guilt appeased?

I used to think that this uncomfortable exchange was one of the benefits of living in the city, back when the guy in front of my apartment building always asked for the same thing: “Can you buy me a container of coffee?” I’d grown up in a suburb — the velvet ghetto, our youth pastor called it — where poverty hardly showed. You could pretend that it didn’t exist. You could live in your mythical bubble.

Not in the city. Not even in nice neighborhoods. I commute from one end of Manhattan to the other, and not a day goes by that I don’t meet someone asking for a handout. Some have signs, some have cups, some have credible stories, some have none, but the wants are unavoidable.

There’s no abstraction between us, just the need, the disparity between someone without and someone who is, if not rich, comfortable even by New York standards. I can’t pretend that I don’t have a roof over my head, a job, food in the fridge. I can’t pretend there’s nothing to share, even when, truth be told, I’ve uttered the boldfaced lie, “I don’t have anything.” I should have said, “I don’t have anything for you.”

Not long ago I gave some money to a woman in a wheelchair who was working the morning rush hour on the subway. There was hardly room for her on the train. I wanted to say, “This is really a rotten time to be begging.” Maybe that was the point. She had a captive audience. Evidently it was worth it because she showed up on my ride home that evening. This time I stayed buried in my Kindle.

I won’t lie — this is hard. I’m not sure that many people would say that living in proximity to such undisguised need is good for the soul. Over the years, I’ve used my subway ride for prayer and meditation, carving out some inner space in this underground journey. But the spiritual life requires action as well as contemplation. As St. Francis supposedly said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” No wonder, as others have observed, that St. Francis is the most loved of saints, and least imitated.

There is a map, produced by Street Smarts NYC, that shows all the different places and times of day you can get a free meal in Manhattan. One day I was talking to a guy named Jose who had asked me for money as he was propped up against an empty storefront on Broadway. I told him about a couple of places not far from him. “You can get a hot meal and some bread and some fruit to take home,” I said.

He smiled at me. Not many teeth. “But I don’t have a home,” he said. I gave him a buck.

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