The Observant Astronomer

The passing scene as observed by an observant Jew, who daylights as an astronomer.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Beggars I've Met

Yesterday I met the Basilisk. His name, he said, was Robert, as he stood under his battered umbrella, smelling of alcohol, looking for money.

Heresville-7 has its share of people with their hands out, some more enterprising than others, and, perhaps it's the hat, or my open and accommodating face, but I seem to attract them. Or perhaps they just hit on everyone, and I'm just an easy mark. It's hard to tell, but I was the only one on that block that the Basilisk came up to, before or after. Not that I always give them anything, but I'm a sucker for a good story. On my walk from my office to the bus stop, a journey of some ten minutes or so, I pass through some of their favourite spots to linger. Some I have to deal with on a daily basis. Other only on occasion.

There was, for example, the Poet. A young woman, looking for a few dollars to pay for a night's stay in the homeless shelter. Trying to stay away from the police who were looking for an excuse to harass her. The first time I encountered her, I declined to give her anything. So she cursed me for being a stingy Jew, and, hurt, embarrassed, and angry, I continued along my way. The next day, I met her again. I tried to avoid her, but she crossed the road to approach me, and offered a fulsome apology for her behaviour of the day before. This I accepted and she proceeded to tell me something of herself. She fancied herself a poet, and offered to share some of her poetry with me. So, we walked along together. She recited some of her poems, and I gave her some cash for the apology and for the poetry. Over the next few months our paths would cross from time to time and we'd exchange poetry for eating money. I don't remember a word, and I'm no judge of poetry, but to my ear her poems had a tone of realism and optimism. I've not seen her is some time now. I hope things are well with her.

Perhaps I'll write another time about the Flower Lady and the Can Man, but I want to capture the Basilisk while he's fresh in my memory. I was waiting at the bus stop, standing under the shelter in the rain when he came over to me. About my height, shiny studs in his ear, short hair tightly braided in the back. His voice was low; his diction less than clear. He stared me in the eye, put out his hand to shake, and struck up a conversation. Or more of a monologue, as his eyes had me captured, unable to speak, unable to turn away.

"I won't lie to you, or tell you a story," he said. "I've done things that are wrong. Now I'm just looking for a few dollars to stay over the night and stay away from the police. When I could, I always helped people out. If they asked me, I gave them what I could. I helped them out." So I reached into my pocket hoping to find a single in there, but out came a fiver. Were his eyes more intense? He could see my discomfort and offered to give me change. So I asked him for three dollars back. He came up with one and I took it, unable to insist, unwilling to appear cheap, bound by his eyes which never left mine.

Now he offered his fist, which I matched with mine for a light tap. He asked my name. Which I offered. He asked where I was going on the bus, and why, and after I answered asked me, "What's my name?"

"Robert," I replied. Which pleased him, and, after another handshake, and a reminder that he had helped others in the past, he let me go and proceeded along the street, leaving me with the impression that I've not seen the last of him.


Blogger Jan & Cindy said...

Wonderful story, Observer. Funny, I had a similar series of experiences over the past few days while in the main square in Krakow.
I'm also a sucker for a story, and some of them are very deeply and tightly woven. I'm never sure if they are true or not.

Once in Nairobi a fellow spent over 2 hours with me giving a story of horrors in Nigeria and a perilous escape to Kenya. He wanted alot of cash, and I gave him quite a bit given my means at the time...but I never shook the impression that I had been had.

These days when someone wants to get into a deeper conversation, I tell them about organ harvesting concentration camps in China and how I spend my spare money trying to get the world to respond. Generally, they do not continue to insist after hearing that.

8:23 a.m., May 06, 2006  
Blogger The Observer said...

Always handy to keep a trump card in your pocket.

I was in Tel Aviv train station once, and was stopped by a fellow with a broken arm with a long sob story about a broken down car, pregnant wife, etc. etc. who wanted to borrow some money. He was very sincere, even wanting to take down my address so as to be able to return the money. The next day he promised. Sure enough, he never turned up, but I'd expected that and had given him the money with that in mind.

Which was all well and good until a few months later when he stopped me again in the same spot with much the same story. Remembering our previous meeting I bid him a good day and proceeded on to the train.

10:29 a.m., May 08, 2006  
Anonymous Neo-Conservaguy said...

My favorite honest beggar experience was in San Francisco, which has a large homeless population. While walking along a sidewalk near the water at the north end of the city, one out of the many signs pleading for money caught my attention and earned my money. The sign read, "Why the hell lie? Please give me $1 for a beer." As saddened as I am by the plight of homeless people, that guy and I shared a silly laugh that I've repeated for years since whenever I recall that interaction. Sometimes life sucks, but sometimes a little dark humor is what we need to keep plodding on into the fray.

1:44 p.m., May 14, 2006  

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