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Three: Swing Low, Sweet Charity January 17, 2014

Posted by The Typist in 365, cryptical envelopment, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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Ed.’s Note: Three should have been Two

I heard him out the window as I squeezed my car into the front of Canseco’s grocery. “Spare any change or a dollar?” I gave him a sidelong glance as I was getting out of the car but he was retreating to his stoop spot between the grocery and the next building. I could see him raise an eyebrow in my direction but I was in the door before he could speak.

I thought about him as I wandered the aisles leisurely grabbing a few things. Skinny but not particularly malnourished looking; spry, not too jittery, nothing crying out DTs or crack. His eyes were a bit blood-shot but his speech was clear and deferential. I’ve heard the well-rehearsed and well-intentioned routine before. Don’t give to beggars. It encourages them to not reach out for help, perpetuates their situation of poverty and possibly homelessness. In Washington, D.C. there were little cards you were encouraged to pick up and give them, listing social service agencies and contacts for AA and Nar-Anon. How they were supposed to avail themselves of these services without a quarter for the phone or bus fare I have no idea.

As I shopped I also thought about something I read today. A top search term on the blog, for Melvin Labranch III, one of the murder victims listed in I think the 2010 list you will find at the top of the page. A search of his name to see where my listing came up in Google led me to this: a story about his younger brother’s rap song about his older brother’s murder. “Alsina tapped fellow N’Awlins MC Kidd Kidd as his song’s guest feature. Kidd Kidd didn’t disappoint, rapping, ‘Once upon a time downtown in the 9 (9th ward), what it don’t mind dyin’/Sworn to a life of crime, was a youngin’ only stood 5’5, big money on his mind/Clothes ain’t wrinkled while his hands on the iron, shot six times run in front of my mom.'”

Sworn to a life of crime. Big money on his mind.

I don ‘t judge the victims. I just list them. They were all, as I have said before, once as innocent as lambs in the lap of Jesus before something went wrong. I just keep the list.

Lately, even in my own state of unemployment, I’ve started to be more generous with panhandlers, especially young black men, less so with the travelers, what you probably like to call gutter punks. Neither is likely to have much luck at the labor agency. Since the storm, contractors prefer docile Latin Americans–especially the illegals, with their bowed heads and that good old-fashioned “sho’ nuf’ Boss” demeanor born of fear of La Migra over African-Americans, raised on the promises of television and Martin Luther King, their sense of entitlement to be treated as human beings. Gutter punks just look like too much trouble and most probably chose that path, although some are probably on the street for good reasons.

Is it wrong to hand these guys a dollar? Back in D.C. I had my regular, and man with crutches, a VFW cap and a jungle camo coat in the winter. I look at the beggars with The Three Penny Opera running in the back of my head and for all I know h this guy is the big shot treasurer of the Beggars Union with a good shtick. I just felt good about him, and he got his dollar a day under the arches of Union Station. One night a young man came to my door pushing a grocery cart with a toddler bundled up against the cold in the kiddie seat, a bundle of belongings in the basket. The child’s mother gone and living in his car was his story. Here comes Peachum’s Morning Song up in the back of my head: “Get up and steal from your neighbor. The beggar, the banker, the cop: they’re all of them out on the take. And the treadmill is not going to stop, so wake you poor sinners awake.” Still it’s a cold night; there’s the child. I pass him $20 and a handful of diapers through the iron grate, and his thanks are honest or at least nomination worthy. He came back a few times. He had found a place to stay but still no job. Another $20, another handful of diapers. He disappeared after a while and I forgot about him until he showed up one afternoon at my door with three $20 bills in his hand. He had found a job delivering the Wall Street Journal to the nabobs of Capitol Hill. He wanted to pay me back. I wish him the best of luck and refuse the money. “God bless you” were his last words.

When I see people like the young black man this afternoon I think: better a job than begging, but better begging that stealing or dealing. I won’t recite the statistics on segregated education (continuing today under our anarchic charter system), the unemployment and incarceration disparities, the preference for docile Latin illegals over black Americans in casual employment. You’ve heard them before and believe them or not. Maybe its the young man with his baby daughter that has skewed my opinion toward giving, combined with the ugly reality of the prospects for a young black man in America today, but I’ve grown more willing to give up one of my own dwindling dollars unless the person asking is a raging crack crazy or falling down drunk. Consider the alternatives. Sworn to a life of crime. Big money on his mind. There is a different look in the eyes of the simply down-and-out: embarrassment at the being reduced to begging, or desperation in those newly put into those circumstances. If you look closely, you can tell who’s going to buy a forty and who’s going to be a dollar menu burger, but even that distinction fades unless I can tell if it’s their second or third beer of the day. I size them up, give them a dollar and–although not a believer in a conventional sense, I remember what the young man in D.C. said when I refused his reimbursement–I say God Bless.

This is the third entry in 365, a commitment I have made to write something here every day to try and get past a writer’s block. The last post was labeled Three but was really Two.

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