Street Theater


When we move from the Bronx to Northern Virginia this summer, we'll miss New York's creative diversity. Especially the beggars.

These practitioners of the city's defining art do not get the credit they deserve, mainly because of the negative image created by hacks who think a simple request or demand should be enough to separate people from their money. A truly skilled beggar puts some thought into his work.

Consider a subway drama I've been privileged to witness on more than one occasion: A respectable-looking man carrying a shoulder bag announces that he works for an organization that feeds the homeless. He says he has sandwiches for anyone on the train who might be hungry, whereupon an unkempt fellow shyly takes him up on his offer and gobbles down the food. Displaying an official-looking laminated letter attesting to his group's authenticity, the first man walks through the train, collecting money from several generous souls (one of whom may also be a confederate).

The genius of this scam is that it ostensibly sets up an intermediary between the donor and the ultimate recipient, thereby transforming a handout into an act of philanthropy. People feel more comfortable about helping the wretched when they don't have to deal with them directly.

The fake social action group is a smarter approach than the high-pressure quid pro quos to which less creative beggars often resort. The notorious squeegee men, who provide you with a service you don't want and then demand payment, are the paradigmatic example.

But squeegee men may be preferable to aggressive a capella singers. Sitting with a couple of friends at a sidewalk table on the Upper West Side one summer night, my wife and I were approached by a man and woman who began performing the doo-wop song "Trickle Trickle," which until that moment I had rather liked.

Ostensibly, they were trying to entertain us, but what they were actually doing was drowning out our conversation. In this context, the line "Tell me how long will it last" took on a new meaning.

The message was clear: Give us some money, and we'll go away. But the average New Yorker is more likely to become angry at such thinly veiled extortion than give in to it.

There's a similar problem with the often-heard beggar's declaration, "I don't want to have to commit a crime." Rather than reassuring you about the fellow's good intentions, it makes you picture him as a pickpocket, purse snatcher, or mugger. In fact, on an empty subway car or a dark, deserted street, the stop-me-before-I-steal approach could easily be taken as a threat. Which maybe is the idea.

The most skillful beggars have a credible story that makes you want to help them because you can readily imagine yourself in their situation. Such cons are based on the insight that most people would rather help someone from a similar socioeconomic background who is temporarily inconvenienced than a derelict in a permanently pathetic state.

A few months ago, for example, a 40ish man in an expensive-looking suit approached our car as we were heading for New Jersey and said his BMW had run out of gas in the middle of the George Washington Bridge. He had left his wallet at work and wondered if we could spare some money so he could refuel his car; he asked for my business card so he could send me a check.

In a similar vein, a guy in his late 20s who approached me on Broadway near110th Street a few years ago said he was a student at Wharton who had come to New York for the weekend and lost his wallet when his backpack was stolen while he was drinking at the Dive Bar on Amsterdam. He said he'd had no luck getting through to his housemates in Philadelphia and so was trying to collect enough money from passers-by for his bus ticket home.

Asking for my name and address, he promised to send me a check for whatever amount I could spare. I was pretty sure the guy was lying, but it was such a good performance, complete with plausible-sounding details and feigned embarassment, that I gave him some money.

A few months later, the same guy came up to me at the same corner and told me exactly the same story. When I mentioned that he owed me money, he hastily boarded a bus.