Once upon a time, in a magical city, at about the time ground was being broken for the World Trade Center, a young recent college graduate was faced with a gut-wrenching moral dilemma because his mother had warned him to never give money to a bum who asserted the cash would be used for a cup of coffee, because that was a falsehood used by scoundrels to subsidize an indolent life of wretched excess and dissipation that often involved excessive consumption of alcohol, and the hapless lad did not wish to be an accessory to such a travesty of clean moral living. So, when, as a new arrival in the metropolis known as "The Big Apple," he noticed that a very burly fellow of a different race had adopted the body English that announced an intention to seek a voluntary contribution to continue the life of debauchery under the hypocritical flag of charitable intentions, the guileless lad resolved to challenge the lie in no uncertain terms.
His plan of operation was thrown into complete disarray when the big guy said: "Son, I wouldn't try to **** (fool) ya; I need a drink." Well, honesty deserves a reward, he thought and immediately reached into his pocket and offered the fellow his choice of a large array of American coinage, saying: "Take what you need." The large fellow took three quarters and said "Thanks." It took a moment for the rural lad to grok to the fact that he had not been taken advantage of, because it was logical to conclude that in such a city where a bottle of beer would obviously be dearer than in the dive bars surrounding the recently departed institute of higher learning.
In the time that transpired between his graduation from a Jesuit institution of higher learning in the early Sixties to this very moment, this columnist has encountered a large number of folks who could be classified as street beggars.
Bob Hope movies had led us to expect that meeting a beggar in the streets of Casablanca would consist of an encounter with an amicable rascal who would use the phrases: "Alms for the love of Allah" as a request for a contribution.
When a stranger in Casablanca, in what was then French Morocco, asked "Hey, American, how much money you got?," we noted with great regret that there were no track and field officials around to officially record the short amount of time it took to put a mile behind us and the guy who might have had more than a voluntary contribution in mind. (Does Roger Bannister's record still stand as the official record?)
Is it a false memory to recall a visit to Berkeley in the Sixties (when Cody's Books was an available bookstore experience for the connoisseurs of that particular mode of shopping) and an encounter with a genuine hippie who was using the then popular cliche' request for "Spare grass, ass, or cash?" to help make his life more endurable? (Isn't it pretty to think so?)
It came to pass in subsequent decades that the hero of this column's opening vignette came to live in the Mar Vista area of Los Angeles and in the course of events would often talk with a fellow who stood at one of the freeway exits and asked for money. Rather than give him cash, the Good Samaritan offered occasionally to buy the guy lunch at the nearby Chinese Restaurant. In the course of these meetings the beggar casually mentioned that he cleared about 38 K annually. It was duly noted that was what he cleared and that if it was taxable take home that would put him in the same bracket as the wage slaves who earned about 60 grand a year. He added that it permitted him to send his kids back East to college. He had no reason to lie and the information was accepted as true.
More recently, back in Berkeley, we have encountered a tsunami of beggars. Are the Sixties really over? The days when we could make the "take what you need" response are long gone and we have had to adjust to the new hard times.
We haven't yet developed a consistent response. Sometimes we give a small amount of cash and note that "it's just a drop in the bucket;" other times we pass by. Most days we give a small amount to the first person to ask. There are two guys to whom we try to give a stipend every time we pass them. There is no logical reason why they get preferred treatment. Who was it who said: "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds"?
Recently we came to witness a new variation of the beggars' routine that we have never before (not even in Casablanca) encountered: a person who cries while he mumbles a sad request for cash. One might think that it would have been a common ploy in the Hollywood area, where unemployed actors abound, but we can not recall such a dramatic flourish from the panhandlers in tinsel town.
As this year's Thanksgiving Day is about to be celebrated (mostly by Republicans), there is a strong desire to add a comment about saying a prayer thanking some divine spirit that America hasn't had to abandon its two concurrent wars because of lack of funds.
This week, (many) America will spend one day displaying the attitude that has made fatness a fad; the next day will be a massive endorsement of the capitalist philosophy as the country starts buying Christmas presents that will add to the recipient's cache of unused material possessions, and then, on Saturday, the first ever Small Business Saturday. The image of tiny vermin scrambling to acquire small scraps that fall from the fat cats' table is not inappropriate. While all that is happening, the USA may send drone bombers (do they look like the V-2's from Peenemunde?) to deliver Holiday messages of death and destruction to various homes in the Middle East as a way of beginning the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of the Prince of Peace.
There is a religious homily about a guy who gives to a beggar and says "There but for the grace of God, go I." Apparently, for the New Great Depression, the new Conservative Christian attitude has morphed into: "On the road to economic recovery, there's bound to be some road kill along the way. Don't take any notice."
A pathetic woman in a photo taken by Dorothea Lang became an icon of the last Depression.
During World War II, artist Norman Rockwell was assigned to do four paintings illustrating America's Four Freedoms. To exemplify "Freedom from Want," he showed a family enjoying a Thanksgiving Day feast.
Would a photo of one of the crying beggars in America juxtaposed with one (Public Domain, of course) of Glenn Beck crying be too subtle for teabaggers? Would it be more poignant if the Beckster was in the middle of a laughing jag? Would the Republicans, who are "starving" for a tax cut extension, get the joke?