I was sitting atop an aging wooden table at half past midnight when I heard a voice singing. It wasn’t great or even good, but there was something warming about the sound of a man pouring out his soul into the clear night sky. In between puffs of his cigarette, his voice cried out to the deaf ears of a small crowd relaxing in the patio of University City’s only late night Mexican restaurant. Heads forcibly turned away, as the privileged looked towards one another, hoping this intruder would walk away and leave us alone. I lifted my head towards the man, looking him in the eyes, a faint smile on my lips as I raised my hand in a weak wave. “Why’d you do that?” my friends wanted to know, “You’re not supposed to pay them any attention. Now he’s gonna come over here.”
He abruptly began his speech—well rehearsed—letting us know that he was hungry and homeless, didn't drink or do drugs, and most importantly, was a veteran. He lifted up a white rectangular name tag of some sort that hung around his neck; I couldn’t make out what it said.
I didn’t understand what was inherently wrong with a man who is broken down and battered. This was a man brought to the point of desperation where he must sing late at night to the drunks and the hungry waiting for their food and alcohol. His eyes were pleading for a fraction of the amount he knew was about to be spent on beers and burritos. Mayank stood up from the table, and walked over to the incomer, as we all looked in disbelief. I had waved, yes, but I had not been about to get up, leave the patio, and begin talking to the man. George, Kunal, and I began chatting again, as Kunal lectured me on why we should not give to the homeless. He told me that if the man was really a veteran, anybody could make a call and he would be taken care of by the VA or some other association. I didn’t know if he was right or wrong, but it didn’t really matter to me. What that sounded like was a copout, a bullshit excuse that we tell ourselves to save us from any guilt or responsibility. If it were true, why didn’t he just make the call? Naively believing society takes care of all veterans, Kunal suspected the man was lying. I shook my head angrily. George shushed us, hoping to listen to what Mayank was saying, but we couldn’t hear a single word.
Our friend returned back to us, unscathed. He had met someone new, made another friend. It was not unusual for Mayank to strike up conversation with a stranger. He’s the one guy who introduces himself to everybody in the room at any event he goes to, and then asks the people their names and if they can tell him a good joke. The old veteran, Nate, began singing again, and Mayank groaned telling us that after talking to him and listening to his life story, he hoped the old soldier wouldn’t resume singing. Our ears throbbed. Nate walked over, shuffling to our table as the steel bottle around his neck swung back and forth, banging into his chest. He sang because his voice was all he had left, what little he could still contribute to the world. I was hoping he wouldn’t ask for any money; I had just given two men a dollar each the night before.
The first man I respected for his hard work; he was on the grind. I had gone down to a club called CODA after eating at a fancy Brazilian steakhouse with my cousin, and needed to use the bathroom. I walked inside to find what looked like a little altar set up at the sink. There were cigarettes and lollipops, perfumes and painkillers, fancy almond soap and a man bumping hip-hop on his laptop waiting to hand you a paper towel to dry your hands. I gave him nothing the first time I entered his temple, and used his wares. He didn’t even ask for a penny in donation; I respected that. The second time I entered his office, I tipped the attendant a dollar; he thanked me. I wanted to thank him instead.
The second man I saw on the street after I left the club. He shuffled over to my group, probably attracted to the sight of my friends in suits and sportcoats. He asked us if we wanted to hear a joke. Mayank answered him while the rest of us tried to ignore the the guy.
“What does Will Smith leave behind in the snow? Fresh Prints.”
I smiled, almost laughing, and while the others turned to walk away, I handed the man a dollar.
Now I was here sitting on a table, face to face with Nate the homeless vet asking me for a few pennies. My friends sat still, waiting for him to exit our space, hoping he’d leave us alone. I pulled out my wallet, ruffling through the bills I wouldn’t be giving him: A one felt like too little, a twenty way too much. I found a 2 dollar bill I’d had for at least 10 years. One of two I had never spent because they felt like something special and rare. They were more than money to me. I gave it to him and he smiled and sang “a two dollar bill?”. I don’t know if he was happy or disappointed clearly knowing I could’ve given him much more.
I wasn’t kind; I was selfish. I gave the two because it meant something special and important to me; I knew he’d rather have three ones than a two, but it made me feel good to give the two. Oftentimes, we give not because we care or we think we ought to, but because it makes us feel nice and warm and fuzzy. You feel good about yourself when you give a little money, and it acts like a pass to continue being self-centered and oblivious to what’s going on outside your life. George, Mayank, and Kunal all believed it was wrong for me to give directly for the poor, but for completely different reasons.
George believes in giving to nonprofits, probably because he runs one. To him, nonprofits are the most effective organizations for distributing aid. If he had $100, instead of giving $10 to each of the 10 homeless people he might see one weekend, he’d rather give that $100 to a charity that is focused on helping the homeless. Yes, he recognizes that many nonprofits are corrupt, and use only a fraction of the money they collect to help those in need—oftentimes I feel like I attend such an institution—but in his eyes if you can separate out the “good” from the “bad”, there lies the potential for change. I think that the high mindedness found in many “good” charities can be poisonous. Clayton Christensen wrote that humility is defined by the “esteem with which you regard others.” It follows then that those who think they know exactly how to fix others’ problems and dictate what exactly aid recipients should do, and what’s best for them, aren’t humble; they aren’t “good”.
Mayank doesn’t believe in giving money to homeless people because it makes him their superiors. By handing them a bill and walking away, he says it puts him above the poor as if they are beneath him. To him, this is akin to a Dad giving his kid a present or some spending money. Rather than assuming hegemony over the poor, he would rather treat them as equals by asking their names, and learning their stories. This might sound a little cynical, but I think Mayank was right when he told George that charities exist to act as a buffer between the rich and the poor. The rich get to feel good about helping the poor without having to interact with these “undesirables” face to face. Writing a check gives you this warm fuzzy feeling of helping out that massages your conscience without looking at pain and poverty in the eye, and confronting the systems which set you apart. Still, I'd rather help financially than do nothing at all.
Kunal doesn’t believe in giving to beggars because he believes in the American Dream. To him, as long as you work hard enough, you can make something for yourself. There are no boundaries to success in his worldview where prosperity is simply a function of perseverance. I don’t blame him. As the children of immigrants we’ve seen first hand the power of the American dream; we know that it is possible to endure myriad hardships in life, but find prosperity in the end. Who am I to question a cornerstone of our nation? All I know is that half of all new income is going to the top 1%, even after taxes. To me, that doesn’t sound like upward mobility; it stinks of aristocracy.
I’m not sure what I believe is the right thing to do. I give when I see someone working hard, and trying to do something for society: whether that’s the guy who washes your window or sings you a song. I give when I’m in the mood to give, and I feel bad for a poor soul or guilty about my comfort. Nothing is constant in my charity. What I do know is that I’m not a good person. Less than an hour after handing Nate that $2 bill, I was walking along 40th street where I saw a man begging for money. His pleas were unheard by the college students still prowling the night looking for food, alcohol, and sex—the Friday trifecta. I walked past him, shifting slightly so as not to come in direct contact with the beggar. I treated him like a stray dog, or a wild animal. I didn’t look him in the eyes, didn’t stop to talk with him, didn’t pay him any heed whatsoever because I was hoping he’d go away or I could escape his reach.
So what is the right thing to do? Do we give to the poor, give to charities, empathize with and get to know homeless people, or just cocoon ourselves in the American Dream? Does hard work really bring success? I know that America, more than any other country in the world, is a hallmark of upward mobility, but I do not honestly believe that it’s so plain and simple. Everybody who is successful has gotten lucky. If I ever become something, it’s not going to be just because I worked hard. The real reasons will be I was born into the right family, in the right place, at the right time where I was motivated to do school work and never had to work a job, and was allowed to go to an ivy league school. Going to school isn’t working hard; working hard is slaving away at a real job to help your broke family pay this month’s rent. Working hard is struggling to make ends meet, not whimpering about whether you’ll get an A. My hard work in school can send me to Wharton and hopefully make me a millionaire while that other kid’s hard work to just survive is likely to keep him below the poverty line just like his parents before him, and their parents before them.
I still don’t know what the solution to these problems is, if there exists one. Comment your thoughts.