Friday, May 23, 2008

Aside: I Never Know What To Do, Here

I finished up at the library over lunch break and walked back to work. I made an active decision to not use the Skyway because it is such a warm, sunny day and I wanted to enjoy the weather. Such blatant selfishness does not come without a price.

Walking south on Hennepin Ave, I had just crossed 5th St N. There's a bus shelter on the corner there, and today there was a crowd of young men in street clothes. Some of them seemed to know each other, chatting casually. On my left I heard one address a fellow pedestrian, "What's up, I know you got fitty cent..."

I swerved to walk around him and another one stepped in front of me. He was a few inches shorter than me with clean, clear skin. His clothes appeared brand-new, unblemished. They were mainly bright red and bright blue: a thick baseball cap tugged to the side, an over sized polar fleece hoodie, oversized shorts with boxers exposed, and running shoes. Very clean, very new clothes on a healthy looking young man.

" 'Skew me, suh," he started and I knew what was next. I'll break it down: any question has the potential for two prefixes, and the presence or non-presence of those prefixes determines the nature of the question. You don't even need to hear the question, because it goes like this:

  1. If there is no prefix, they want to know what time it is.
  2. If there is one prefix--"excuse me"--they need directions.
  3. If the prefix is "sir" then you dropped something and they're handing it back.
  4. But if there are two prefixes--both "excuse me" and "sir"--they want money.

I had already walked past but stopped and turned around to face him, and this startled him so much he stumbled over his opener: "Do you got, do you got an extra fitty cent?"

I did what I usually do in this situation: I looked him dead in the eye, put on a vaguely sympathetic expression, and told him, "Sorry, I don' got anything on me." This is accompanied with a shrug of the shoulders and hands rising slightly to the sides in a gesture of helplessness. I answered his question with a technical truth--I do not in fact have exactly fifty cents on my person, but did have a five-dollar bill and a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet. However, rare is the situation that would see me hand over five dollars to a stranger, and never would this happen with a twenty.

It's rude to lie to someone, I realize this, but it is less rude and antagonistic than pretending to not have heard him at all and kept on walking, which is what most people do to panhandlers. Granted, it's also inconsiderate to accost someone on the street and beg for money one clearly does not need (one is not starving, and one is clad in brand-spanking-new, trendy name-brand street gear), but... I don't know "but" what. The poor behavior of others does not excuse my own, and I dwell on this especially in this situation.

He paused and I started to turn away. He said, "Ah'm broke as hell." A young woman sitting on a bench nearby broke into raucous laughter and grabbed the collar of her heather grey hoodie, tugging it up to cover her state of hilarity. Fleetingly, I wondered if they were together.

I turned toward him again, slightly raised my outspread arms again, looked him in the eye and said in a louder voice, "I got nothin' on me."

He turned away and I turned away and walked back to the office with a knot in my stomach. I lied about being broke but I didn't want to hand over a five-dollar bill, nor expose the twenty in my wallet to a group of panhandling young men. He didn't appear to be in dire straits but it's not my place to judge him. And the whole thing is heavily laden with racial tension because we were not of similar ethnic heritage.

Lastly, I'm upset I can't peacefully walk down the street and enjoy the sunshine in this city.



as of a few years ago, i've moved from "sorry" to "No." - it effectively deflects any further inquiries.

Alexis said...

You know, if I may interject a comment here (I believe that's what this field is for): I was just having a discussion with The Mexican about how I miss being able to walk around the neighborhood on sunny afternoons, like today. I can no longer do this because of the vast number of men along the way, many of them waiting at bus stops. This isn't about panhandling, or even race, it's about getting accosted with sexual comments, whistles or overly friendly inquiries regarding how I'm doing or the location of my man. But, you know, nobody wants to hear the plight of the pretty girl. Even though I can't walk down the street, drive my car in slow traffic or fucking pump gas without being accosted, because I'm cute apparently means I've got no cause for complaint.