In a confined place such as a subway car, the conglomerate of individuals standing, sitting and pressed against one another seem to form a unique grassroots governing body that operates independently of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s prominently posted Rules of Conduct. Over time the following unwritten rules of engagement between passengers and panhandlers have emerged:
1.) Pocket Pat and Shrug: This simple maneuver requires a light palm tap with both hands against each of your pockets, implying a clear desire or intention to donate but an absence of money or wallet. This gesture is typically followed by an empathetic shrug, but it seems most convincing if followed by a barely audible “Sorry, man” or, better yet, “Sorry, bro” if you want to flaunt your ability to talk to anyone.
2.) The Timid Turn-Away: This option seems perfect for the MTA rider who is unaccustomed to New York City eccentricity or hasn’t quite shaken the elementary-school mantra of “don’t talk to strangers.” If this is the case, spin 90 degrees and quickly engage in conversation with a friend; however, if you don’t have a friend available, don’t pretend to search for something in your purse or bag, which might be mistaken as a search for your wallet. These situations are nerve-racking and often initiate a strange and unidentifiable loud silence in the subway car.
3.) The Long-Winded Larry: A suitable option for those who feel extremely self-conscious about their inherent stinginess but still feel it necessary to justify themselves by providing a thorough explanation of why they don’t have change. Remember, no one is even remotely concerned about your alibi; nonetheless, it helps to save some face if you are carrying a suitcase and are wearing an expensive suit.
4.) The Absorbed Reader: If you freeze up completely, continue reading your newspaper or book, but don’t expect to retain any information because you’re really just staring at words.
5.) The Concerned Gaze: Fixate your eyes in the general direction of the panhandler- perhaps towards a subway map or advertisement you’ve probably already read twice- but nonetheless pick one object and make it your focal point. Signal only slight acknowledgment and concern for panhandlers as they approach, and maintain an expression of preoccupied self-contemplation as to avoid the burden of eye contact or polite denial as they pass.
6.) The Altruist: The altruist is swayed by the countenance of the beggar and reaches into a pocket and actually gives. If you revel in the sound of generosity that hard-earned coins make as they clang into a calloused hand or change cup, you are a natural. The appropriate facial expression after donating is a closed mouth but tight-faced half-smile timed perfectly with a quick up-down head nod and a slight raise of the eyebrows, also known as a silent It’s the Best I Can Do Right Now, I Feel for Ya’. A true altruist has the unique ability to prompt a female in categories of 1 through 5 to elbow-nudge a male partner, subsequently prompting him to donate and make that same obnoxious charitable facial expression.
Have you noticed a pattern with most of these rules?
A great many New Yorkers would probably agree with the sentiment I want to give, but I’m not a heartless bastard. The reoccurring expressions of restrained guilt and awkwardness are seemingly more prevalent than sheer frugality or stinginess, but this is clearly a sensitive subject, made more so by public-private conflicts.
In Manhattan, the distinction between the public and private sectors of city life, is already thoroughly muddled by obnoxious cell phone users, vociferous across-the-street catfights, homeless asleep on the sidewalks, advertisements, and iPod walkers unaware of surroundings. As a result, I find it particularly difficult to single out people using public transportation for imposing themselves on me by begging as long as there are no malicious intentions. With all these options for how to respond, does the city really need to make it illegal?