They can't be avoided, these encounters. In New York, the vernacular about street people seems particularly apt: They're always in your face.
Once, I was walking down on Fourth Avenue, not far from Washington Square Park, when a woman grabbed my arm and ordered me to buy her a bunch of bananas. Before I knew it, she maneuvered me to a nearby deli, where I bought her a bunch of bananas, much to the consternation of the proprietor.
"You shouldn't help those people," the proprietor said. "They will just take advantage of you."
Yes, but . . .
Nowadays, every trip to the market, every quick coffee at the local sidewalk cafe is a catalyst for instantaneous soul-searching. Each encounter seems like a test of character. Each encounter begs for a philosophy, a way of behaving. Each encounter brings a cascade of questions:
Should I give? How much to give? When to give? To whom? Who is deserving? Who is not? Who am I to judge? Should I walk away? If I do, am I a bad person?
No topic, except perhaps race, engenders as much confusion. I have watched many of my artist/writer friends, themselves with limited resources, struggle to come up with answers. Most developed rules of thumb on which their charity is based.
One friend liked to give only when there was extra change in the right-hand coat pocket. Another gives based on infirmity; the heart-rending armless or legless person was a sure touch.
One friend gave for an honest confession: "Can you spare a dollar? I need to buy some marijuana." Another gave to make the panhandler go away.
Some friends dug deeper if there were children. Pets also were sure bets. Some only purchased food, never giving cash. And some never gave, donating instead to established charities.
I have heard the argument that any giving perpetuates the problem. I have heard, "Everybody has their troubles." I have heard a case for government intervention only. I have friends who always manage to find loose change. One thing is sure. Whether uptown, downtown, west side, east side--the outstretched hand is relentlessly everywhere.
Only once have I encountered a professional beggar, a true ascetic. He walked slowly through the New York Chinatown streets, shaved head bowed, methodically ringing a bell, a small beggar's wooden bowl on his shoulder.
On the whole, I would say that the homeless I encountered were not Buddhists. Nor were they "sannyasi," those Hindu mendicants who renounce earthly goods as part of their religion.
The guy shivering under the tattered blanket, the woman sleeping in the doorway, the teen-ager trying to sell castoffs on the street were not on self-sacrificial paths toward enlightenment. They were victims. And their ubiquitous presence is a flesh-and-blood reminder of failed policies and failed social responsibilities.
The daily gauntlet eventually wore me down. I became numb. I quickened my pace. The young teen-ager racked in tears on Sixth Avenue could rock herself to sleep for all I cared. I averted my eyes. When approached, I told white lies. I pretended to check my pocketbook. Then, I gave a sheepish shrug to say "I'm sorry."
I know it sounds melodramatic, but my quotient had been reached. I had steeled myself against the daily onslaught of human suffering. I had on my emotional armor, and I didn't like it, or myself, one bit.
Although I grew up in Chinatown, Los Angeles, I hadn't lived in Southern California since 1980. I came home for a writing job, and truthfully, for a respite from the battering moral dilemmas of New York.
But they are inescapable.
The other day, a man approached me as I ordered at a fast-food drive-up window on Sunset Boulevard. "I'm sorry, I look dirty and I smell," he said. "Spare any change, ma'am?" I gave him 75 cents.
As I slowed off the freeway, a Vietnam vet startled me by rapping on my car window. The sign he carried read: "WORK FOR FOOD." I locked my car door quickly. Too many car-jacking scares.
A woman approached me at the post office, and another woman approached me in front of my bank branch on Hollywood Boulevard. I gave the first a quarter. The other got nothing, as I had only big bills.
Every morning in my middling-to-upscale neighborhood, I watch a bearded man push a rattling cart up my street. He's scrounging around in the trash bins, looking for redeemables. I help by leaving my seltzer bottles in plastic bags outside the bin.
Just like New York City, but for one exception.
One evening, a man I presumed to be homeless came to my apartment building. He rang my doorbell. He told me his hard-luck story. I gave him all the change I had, not out of generosity, but out of fear. Not even in New York City was an encounter this close.
It was too close, and I didn't like it at all.
But I am reminded of something my mother did when I was a youngster. My mother used to trundle us into our aquamarine four-door Ford sedan and take us on seemingly aimless pleasure drives around the city.
One of her favorite spots was Skid Row. She'd drive up and down Los Angeles and San Pedro streets, pointing out the shuffling people, the huddled shadows in the doorways, the lumps of humanity underneath the cardboard. "That could be you someday," she would say. "That could be you."