Beggars can’t be posers

“Bitch, I’m broke.”

-Cody Chesnutt

Let me relate to you a traumatic tale of woe. A beggar accosted me on Adelaide street, as I was fixing to cross the road. At first I thought he was just your average dirty looking guy chilling out on a bench, but then he languidly averted his head from the vacant spot he had been staring at and said “Excuse me buddy, c’n you spare us some money?”

Caught off guard, and trapped by the still unceasing traffic in front of me, I dug around in my pocket with an air approaching panic as I realized I had no change. “Sorry man, got no coins,” I said, my voice full of regret. Ever sympathetic to strangers unable to alleviate the guilt he inspired in them, the beggar offered me a generous alternative:

“What about a note then, buddy? Spare us a note?”

It struck me that this was the same phrase that often popped into my mind whenever I heard buskers plying their trade on various instruments of music, although my utterance of it would be more like “spare me from your notes”! Perhaps the association was a deliberate ploy on the beggar’s part, drawing my attention to the fact that he was mercifully not raping a ukelele but instead sitting there placidly doing nothing – a worthy cause indeed.

Sadly, I felt it was not enough to warrant the issuing of paper money, so I said:”Sorry man, can’t do that,” filling my voice with such enormous regret and sorrow that it must have been plain to him that no amount of money-giving would alleviate the crushing guilt that I felt at rejecting his request – nay, at the fact of his mere existence. Such was my guilt (I endeavored to express with my subtle inflection) that to cast petty notes at it would be like mailing a bean to Mexico, or attempting to save a beached whale with an eyedropper. No, that money would be far better spent on buying myself a coffee, and thereby giving me a tangible joy that might momentarily distract me from the abyss of guilt that continually swallowed my world whenever I so much as contemplated the plight of the beggar.

Obviously not hearing my inflection when I said “can’t do it”, the beggar said, “Oh yeah? Why’s that then?” his tone flowing smoothly from pleading into aggressive, much like a toboggan can go smoothly from cruising down the slope to threatening as it segues the boundary separating it from the crowd of onlookers. Unable to give a satisfactory answer, I bolted across the road through traffic, looking, I imagined, much like one of those bush turkeys who, in avoiding some minor threat like a pedestrian, decides to fling itself into traffic, apparently forgetting that it has wings, and run across the road choosing certain death rather than face crossing the inexorable path of the old Chinese man in the wheelchair. What exactly was I so afraid of, then? I usually finish the story by relating how I simply ignored the beggar, turned coolly aside and waited in silence for an opening, before calmly crossing the road and going about my business.

“Lucky thing too,” I would say, “he was probably about to get up and stab me to death in the guts. You never can tell with these homeless types.”

But today I will end this story a different way. I will explore what might have happened if I had faced this terrifying beggar.

“A note? Certainly, my good man.” I said, handing him a five. Not lifting his gaze from mine, even as the cash vanished into the recesses of his very being, he said:

“Five dollars? I can’t do much with that, buddy. Could you spare any more?”

“Hmm, yes, I suppose you’re right. Tell you what. How much money do you have right now, altogether?”

“Five dollars.”

“Okay. Well, I have $1205 in my bank account. What do you say I give you $600 of that, and then we’ll each have $605?”

The beggar looked doubtful. “What about the rest of it? Can’t you spare some more? I’m in a bad way, buddy, gotta buy some accommodation in a hostel and some food and stuff.”

“Well, you make an interesting point. But if I gave you more than $600, you would then have more money than me. In that case, I should then ask you to spare me some change, because then I will be the beggar and you the rich man.”

The beggar scratched his head. “But I’m still hairy and filthy and not doing anything with myself.”

“Ah. I see now. You’re not a beggar because you’re poor; you’re a beggar because you choose to be dirty and inconsequential. Why then, should I give you anything at all?”

Wising up to my game, the beggar said,

“Well, you don’t give money to a beggar so that he can stop being a beggar. You give it to him so that he can carry on being a beggar, which is his chosen way of life.”

“My good sir, I think you are confusing being a beggar with being a Buddhist monk, for whom begging is part of a spiritual philosophy of life. But who am I to say that you do not have your own brand of hobo-spirituality? I will humor you. I shall give you the $600 so that you can keep being unwashed and useless. But what shall I give the next beggar I meet?”

The beggar, whatever his faults may have been, was able to calculate the arithmetic remarkably quickly.

“$300 of course,” he said.

“But my good man! If I gave that beggar $300, I would be down to only $300 myself, half of what you then have! My best course of action would be to come back to you, and beg you for some money, which following our logic you would be obliged to pay me – specifically, $150 putting us equal again at $450. But, thus reimbursed, I should dread passing the second beggar again, as I would have to pay him yet again to equalize. Going back and forth, we would each eventually settle at one third of the total original balance. So I’m afraid, given the existence of other beggars with equal rights as yours, I must give you less than the $600.”

The beggar and I then sat down and scratched out some sums on the pavement, taking into account all of the beggars in Asutralia that I was likely to meet and their current holdings (which are of course common knowledge to all beggars). We finally reached the conclusion that I should pay the beggar 1 cent. I was about to ask him for his BSB number so that I could transfer the exact amount, when a thought struck me.

“But wait! How am I going to get all the other shares of my money to the other beggars?”

The beggar offered to do it for me, but I pointed out that he was a dirty beggar and not to be trusted, a point that he himself could not deny. “If only there was some institution, that could collect the money from me and other rich people of Australia, and distribute it amongst the beggars? Such an institution would presumably also be like a big nanny to everybody and make sure the beggars didn’t spend it on booze and crack, and have systems in place to make beggars do useful things instead of absorb coins and emit farts.”

“But there is such an institution! It’s called the government,” said the beggar.

“Well then! This is for the tax man,” I said, cheerily pocketing my 5c. And that’s when the beggar stabbed me in the guts.

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