Saturday, February 17, 2007

Like A Rolling Stone

This afternoon, driving back to my place, I stopped at a light between Plaza and Central Avenue. In a corner of the intersection stood a skinny man with a long, unwashed beard, and as he raised his arms to the ongoing traffic, you could read the sign he had written with markers over a piece of cardboard: “I’m Homeless, Please Help.” I know this guy, I don’t know him personally, but whenever I stop at his corner, I notice how people give him dollar bills, and sometimes a few will even roll down their windows to hand him a bag of potato chips or a can of beans. Sometimes he knocks on my window whenever I happen to be stuck waiting for the green light: I will usually smile at him and, with a goofy look, apologize for being almost as broke as he is and for not being able to help him out.
Without getting into the social circumstances that push men outside of the confinements of society and into the grounds of homelessness, I can say that some of these are the most noble characters I have ever ran into and lending them your ear every once in a while, is better than giving them a quarter. I’ve been around so many people that have taken begging as a profession, that I might as well write about them.

So it goes…

About Beggars and Afternoon Ramblers
(Another pointless essay triggered by my curiosity on strangers)

When I was living in Buenos Ayres, driving was not something people did unless you were rich and could afford a car, so I learned how to take the bus by myself in seventh grade. I also acquired a passion for riding the train as frequently as I could once I turned seventeen and had to go to the city more often, in my last years of High School. The train was better than the bus simply because there was no bus driver controlling passengers from the rear view mirror, so you could pick any seat and move around the train wagons. It was also easier to travel without paying, by memorizing the train attendant’s schedule and avoiding him when he approached to ask for tickets. Once on a seat, you could stare through the window at the emptiness of the horizon sinking under the tracks, letting it take you to places, and it was beautiful.

But something impossible to ignore, something that became part of my reality, were the beggars and rambling salesmen who hopped in the wagons every afternoon, hoping to collect some money from us, the passengers. After traveling enough that one almost knew them by name, I had my favorite and least favorite beggars which I classified depending on how funny, or strange, or enigmatic. The Hare Krishna men, with their shaved heads and funny outfits, where my first pick because they weren’t trying to feed seven kids and sounded a little more laid back, and less demanding, as they spoke to the passengers. Also, I gave them credit for simultaneously trying to pick up chicks while distributing their religious publications, and for their willingness to engage on pseudo philosophical conversations with any bored stranger in the train. But I also liked the musicians who would play a song in their guitar and pass their empty hats around the wagon, because those, with their starving artist charm, made my day.

One of my favorites was a blind man who always traveled in the three o’ clock train, with his shinny wooden cane that stomped on the floor and his sunglasses covering his damaged eyes. I never could tell if he was really a blind man, or if he was a good pretender, because sometimes I would catch him following the shape of a young woman’s cleavage as she walked in front of him, but he did put on an interesting act. He would carry an empty can full of dimes that he would shake while repeating how he was blind and needed money to eat. Every afternoon, as the train was two stations away from my destination, I would hear the rattling of coins from a distance, his metal can that held a rhythm which was very basic and rudimentary, and I knew it was him heading towards my wagon.

The more desperate ones, the ex-crack addicts who were collecting money for their rehab fund, or the man who had lost his job and needed to feed his baby (sometimes he even carried the baby with him, as living proof) had the best tragedy stories. Because, even when you could tell they where exaggerating, their words would asphyxiate and you would leave the station wondering how life could be so cruel to some. And that is how the selection process worked in the train, because no passenger had enough money to give a dollar to each rambler, the performer that made you feel more touched was the one that always managed to take those last quarters away from you, the ones you had left to buy yourself a sandwich.

As much as these situations are painful to talk about, poverty is no stranger in Argentina. One learns to live immersed in it without being hypocritical about one’s surroundings, and without ignoring its effects on society. My own grandfather had to sell lottery tickets on the train when his factory went bankrupt, and up to this day I can still imagine his smiley dark eyes under his wrinkles, as he convinced other passengers to lend him a hand. And at the end of the day, what these walkers, these homeless characters, these ramblers have left me from my afternoon trips to the city, is their incredible character, their strength, and I have nothing but admiration.

Giving a can of beans to the homeless man who waves his cardboard sign at the intersection of Plaza and Central is not a bad idea, at all; giving him a dollar bill is even a better idea. But it does not really do any good if one goes home and forgets, or even worse, if one thinks one has done charity for the individual, if one feels redeemed after handing out a bunch of coins, when, really, one should be feeling honored to have crossed the intersection leaving with the most palpable example of what character and strength should tangibly look like. It does not do any good if one does not feel the need to stop for a second, and really take a look.

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