15 October 2007

Just Like Old Times

When I was living/squatting/hiding out from the East Village in 1968, it was not unusual for young hippies like myself to be approached by black panhandlers and/or scam artists who would try to guilt trip us into parting with our cash as, you know, our way of apologizing for slavery and segregation and all that sort of stuff.

Sometimes this would involve the good cop-bad cop approach, where one guy would be all menacing and threatening and then the other would be like, "Hey, don't be messing with him, he's not like most of them white people, I can tell he's cool, ain't that right, brother?" This particular approach once worked well enough (granted, I was very high on LSD at the time) to persuade me to accompany three unsavory characters down E. 11th Street past Avenue B, then generally considered the point at which all hope should be abandoned (and also, not coincidentally, where I lived) to get my head smashed in with the barrel of a gun.

Usually things didn't turn out that badly, though; more often a result satisfactory to all parties was reached with the handing over of a buck or two, sometimes but not always in exchange for some oregano or similar marijuana substitute. Even when they realized they'd been hustled, many white kids who'd only recently arrived in the city from more affluent suburbs felt a certain glow of accomplishment, thinking that they'd assumed their proper position in the urban food chain.

The knock on the head, resulting in my coming close to bleeding to death, disabused me rather more quickly of such romantic notions, and soon - it happened just as often in San Francisco and Berkeley - I could see what was coming before most hustlers could get a "Yo, brother" out of their mouths.

There were times - not often, but occasionally - where I'd hand over some cash, either because the guy's story was exceptionally good or because it seemed like the better part of valor, but even when I did, I rarely pretended to believe what I heard. And gradually people stopped asking. I don't know if that sort of appeal went out of fashion or if it just didn't look like something that would work on me, but until tonight it had been years - decades, more like - since someone tried the race card on me as a means of extracting cash.

It didn't start out that way. The guy followed me into Ray's ice cream and fries shop on Avenue A where I was getting my ritual black and white cone (Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder may have ebony and ivory; the black and white cone is my bit for racial harmony) before heading home for the night.

He was rattling a cup with a few coins in it and asked for some more "so I can get something to eat." The cloud of alcohol fumes enveloping him told a different story and I pointed that out. A lively discussion ensued for quite some time while Ray was refilling the ice cream machine, during which Ray would occasionally shout from the back, "Get a job, panhandling is no good!" Eventually I was almost willing to believe that the guy genuinely wanted something to eat, and though I wasn't going to give him money, offered to buy him some food.

Then things went downhill, when Mr. Beggar started spouting off about how Ray was "rich" and how his daddy must have given him the money to buy his shop, when in fact Ray had worked over 20 years as a dishwasher to earn the money. Then, perhaps even more unwisely, he claimed to be making more money than either Ray or myself and that he begged only "for something to do, to get out of the house."

At this point he whipped out a bottle of vodka and took a large swig, claiming that "I can drink if I want to," which had never been under dispute, only the matter of who was going to pay for it. I said that I wasn't going to, and perhaps unfairly withdrew my offer to buy him some food.

That's when it turned ugly. "I never got my 40 acres and a mule, either. You people enslaved me, you owe me now."

The appropriate reaction to this would have been uproarious laughter, but instead I got mad, pointing out that though he did look the worse for wear, I was pretty sure all the slaves had been freed at least 100 years before he was born and that neither I nor my ancestors were anywhere near this country when that whole slavery thing was going on.

By now the discussion had moved out onto Avenue A, and got uglier. "I don't need to ask for no money," he snarled, "I could just take it, you know." At that point I blew a fuse and started shouting that I was calling the police and for him to get the fuck away from me. This got quite a reaction from the peanut gallery of drunks and occasional spare changers who usually congregate outside the bodega.

At first they laughed at me, thinking I was being way too paranoid. Street robberies are not exactly common on that stretch of Avenue A; in fact, I can't remember the last time I heard of one. So I half yelled at, half reasoned with them, explaining just why the guy had set me off like that, and so impassioned was I that they ended up more or less agreeing with me. Or at least giving a pretty fair impression thereof.

Meanwhile the original beggar had slunk off into the darkness and I headed off for the subway, now only mad at myself for being such a doofus. As messed up as the guy was, I felt I was in the wrong for first promising to buy him food and then going back on the promise, and resolved to apologize to him if/when I see him again. At the same time, that whole reparations/"you owe us" scam really does set me off, whether being worked by street hustlers or professionals of the Sharpton-Jackson ilk.

But trying to reason with a drunk guy about the finer points of racial history or socio-economic theory? That's the kind of thing only other drunk guys have even a shred of an excuse for doing, and I haven't been drunk in over six years. In fact, one of the last times I got into a confrontation of this sort was when I was drunk, sometime in 2000 or 2001, and found myself wrestling with a crackhead on the rain-slicked pavement of Oxford Street over a lighter he'd borrowed and refused to give back.

It was a definite clue that something wasn't quite right with the way I was going about life, and I'm generally pleased to say that since I stopped drinking, voilĂ , no more wrestling with crackheads. But I found tonight's encounter disturbing for much the same reason: although I wasn't drunk, I was acting and (not) thinking dangerously close to the way a drunk guy acts and thinks. Perhaps it's time to take a hard look at my ice cream cone habit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While slavery did end when you claim, blacks were pretty much barred from anything lucrative until somewhat after the '60s.

The resulting vacuum of social capital still present in the black community is enough to disadvantage anyone. (Coming from someone who grew up with minimal social capital myself, I can tell you just how debilitating it can be)

On the flipside though, after gaining some insight into just how 'rough' most panhandlers have it, I have no problem not giving anything to any of them. They often eat better than I do.