This morning, the man sitting next to me on the subway turned to me and asked, “do you have a dollar?” I was pretty startled by his question, not because he was a man on the subway asking for money, but because he was a man sitting next to me——practically on top of me——asking for money. When I said, “I don’t have a dollar for you,” he turned to other people who had just boarded the train and repeated his entreaty, leaning in toward the passenger and even tapping some of the straphangers on the shoulder, but never vacating his comfortable seat.
The whole business struck me as a serious breach of panhandler etiquette. The traditional panhandler-passenger relationship is this: passengers are seated and standing, and a panhandler places himself at the end of the subway car, where he begins his “pitch.” The pitch typically includes some combination of “war veteran,” “mental illness,” “homeless,” “basketball team,” “HIV,” “shame,” and “lake of fire.” The panhandler then proceeds along the car, either passively holding out his or her hand or more aggressively rattling a Pringle’s can filled with change. Sometimes, in extreme situations, a panhandler will stand over a white person who is reading a copy of SURFACE Magazine, listening to an iPod that’s been secreted in the special iPod pouch of his Jack Spade messenger bag, and staring at his Campers, trying very consciously not to make eye contact with the panhandler in hopes that he will just move along. (This is the commuter’s equivalent of a Mexican stand-off.) Then, usually at the next stop, the panhandler will exit the car, move on to next, and repeat this process until, finally, he has made his way through every car on the train. At this point he will usually step off the train and wait for the next one, to start again.
But not this asshole. No, he seemed to be genuinely enjoying his commute, even going as far as sitting spread-legged to commute-block other passengers. At one point he even sat with his legs crossed, as comfortable as can be, while he tugged at the coats of people standing over him (without a seat) and asked each of them, individually, for a dollar. If you’ll forgive me jumping to conclusions, I wonder if his spoiled, decadent and lazy sense of entitlement probably might convince others that their dollar contributions will be not be wisely invested.
I have to confess, though, eventually I came to understand and even admire his unique position. He had a pretty sweet deal, scoring a seat on the subway during the morning rush hour and earning some money in the process. Who wrote the rule saying it’s necesssary to stand or walk around the subway car asking for money? Why not take a more relaxed approach, and let the marks come to you? I guess it can be confusing, though. There is a sort of unspoken desire to know how to separate commuters from panhandlers. When anyone sitting next to you can just turn to you and ask for a dollar, is that a sign that society is beginning to break down? Can anyone panhandle, without sacrificing even the most basic privileges of the normal commuter (a seat)?
If this is true, and seated panhandlers become more fashionable, what (apart from dignity and courtesy) really prevents anyone else from jumping in and making a little extra cash on their commute? I wonder what it would be like if every time this panhandler uncrossed his legs, leaned forward, and asked someone for a dollar, I just cut him off with, “how about 50 cents? We can make this happen right here, right now for only 50 cents. That’s HALF of what he’s asking! You tell me where you’ll find a better deal than that.” An entrepreneurial mind could really benefit from a situation like this. Hop on the subway at the first stop, when the train is still empty, then let it fill up with rush hour commuters, and auction off your seat to the highest bidder. You’re welcome, all the homeless people sitting at their rich, oiled mohagony desks, reading this web site.