Friday, September 02, 2011

`That Brown-Bagged Bottle, Pride'

A red light caught me on the freeway access road before I could flee the beggar’s imploring gaze. Houston crawls with them, more than any city I’ve known. Most are white, male and middle-aged -- my own demographic. Often they defy stereotype and appear clean, well-groomed and mannerly. The guy with whom I shared a red light on Wednesday wore pressed blue jeans, a white T-shirt and running shoes. William Mayhew taxonimized beggars in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and said this sort “`pose’ themselves for the admiration of the thrifty matrons, who are their best supporters.”

His cardboard sign was terse: “Homeless Vet.” The real pitch was his demeanor – cocked head and steady, passive-aggressive gaze. It said: “I’m like you. How can you resist?”

I resisted. Bill Vallicella has covered this thoroughly, but still I feel unsettled. I’m not cheap. My instincts tell me to help a friend or deserving stranger. However, I’m suspicious not only of the beggar but of myself. I’m not above giving him a buck so I can congratulate myself on the generosity of my spirit. X.J. Kennedy, who celebrated his eighty-second birthday on Aug. 21, suggests in “The Withdrawn Gift” (In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007) that he would understand:

“The homeless on the sidewalk said
As we walked by, Wish I was dead?

“And sat back in his self-made pond
Of piss. Your eyes flashed, Don’t respond.

And so the quarter in my hand
I’d meant to toss him didn’t land.

Denying him, I felt denied
A swig from that brown-bagged bottle, pride.”


Jackson said...

The left hand knows what the right hand is doing. I suppose there's a conspiracy between the two when I refuse a beggar. I choose to face the temptation of self-congratulation by donating to The Red Cross. They have a nice web-site option of directing money where "the need is greatest". There is a Christian puzzle beyond the nearly impossible obliviousness of left hand from the right hand. Jesus was angry at the Pharisees for refusing to support their own parents because they had to tithe instead (and never secretly of course). "Charity begins at home," I suppose.

One dollar? Hello, Jack, this is Don Wilson. Jello has six delicious flavors! ;-]

The Sanity Inspector said...

"Whoever came to see Rebbe Shmelke with outstretched palms left bearing a gift. One day, when he had not a single piece of change, he gave a beggar a ring he saw lying on the table. It belonged to his wife, who, when she heard the story, complained loudly. "How could you, didn't you know this was a valuable ring, a diamond ring?"

"Whereupon Shmelke ran out of the house in pursuit of the beggar,
shouting: "Friend, listen, that ring is valuable! Don't let the
jeweler cheat you! You mustn't sell it too cheap!"

-- Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: portraits and legends of Hasidic
masters, 1972