Halfway through my subway ride home today, a panhandler walked into our car and started loudly asking everyone for money.
This is not unusual in New York City. Naturally, these things always seem to happen under the most crowded of circumstances, so there wasn’t much room for him (or others) to move as he edged his way in and out of passengers.
I wasn’t really paying attention — I was engrossed in a book — but as he approached me, it was hard not to notice. With every person he walked past, he looked in their face, got to their level and demanded:
“Can’t you give me something? Hey you! I’m talking to you! I’m looking for a little help here.”
It was certainly a little more aggressive than usual, but I didn’t let my eyes drift from the page in my book and just continued to read on. I noticed the woman next to me glance my way as she saw what was happening. I didn’t flinch. Finally he gave up and moved to the next person:
“Hey, sir! I’m talking to you. Do you have any change to spare? I’m just looking to get something to eat here. Hello! Can you hear me?”
“Ma’am! Can you help me out? Please?”
As he moved away, one person at a time, I let his continual chorus feed into the passage I was reading. But then I heard:
“Yo, man. Don’t be like that. It’s okay to ask for help but you can NOT get up in people’s faces like that. It’s not cool. You’ve got to stop.”
I looked up from my book immediately. He’d been confronted.
The panhandler paused and looked the passenger in the eye — one of the largest-built men on our subway car. Our passenger ally kept his earbuds in as he looked at the panhandler and just shook his head.
I watched as they exchanged a look. One of pity, perhaps, mixed with recognition. It was a look of recognition that I couldn’t give, not knowing enough to understand where exactly he was coming from. Or maybe just one I couldn’t give honestly enough to convey the same level of trust.
The panhandler quieted himself down, shuffled his feet and stared at the floor for the long transitioning express stop between 42nd Street and 72nd Street. I was amazed. There was something empathetic yet emphatic in our fellow passenger’s light chastise that hit home. In just an instant, he managed to convey respect and decency simultaneously, championing equally for the right of the passengers to maintain a quiet subway car and for men in need to have a right to ask for help.
Eventually the panhandler attempted to slide past the passenger who had quieted him, but was blocked in his attempt.
“Listen man, I’ll let you go past. But I don’t want to see you doing any more of that here. It’s not okay. Not like that. You understand?”
The panhandler nodded meekly, a gesture tinged as equally with shame as with respect. The rest of our ride continued in silence.
It’s not often that you come across “translators” like that in the real world — people who can simultaneously connect with two disparate parties who often find themselves in a state of discord. It’s incredibly tough to do this well; it’s something I wish we saw more among our politicians.
What struck me the most was the immediacy of the result. That passenger didn’t do anything crazy or outlandish. He simply called out a behavior that everybody knew was out of whack. None of the other passengers appreciated it; the panhandler knew it wasn’t the most compelling way to ask for money. But nobody else called it out.
It’s scary to be “that guy” to make the call. And yes, for sure, his built and demeanor helped to quiet the aggravator in question. But in the end, on a cramped subway car of 100+ people, it just took one person to change the environment for everyone. And he did it without belittlement, bitterness, anger, or physical aggression. At least in this case, that was enough.