“Help!” he cried out, with full throated appeal.”Help Me!” “Help Me! I need somebody!” “Please.” I am homeless and starving and all I need is some money to get something to eat.”
Then, he ramped it up even further, with a piercing scream that translated into a full helpless man cry,”P L E A S E…. HELP me.” It felt so pathetic, a grown man crying so hard in public. For me, a little over done. “Completely over the top,” my son said.
Ahmed and I turned away, not sure what to do. The subway experience is an adventure in itself, of trying to pretend you have private space when the crowds jostle and sway, elbow to chest in a human ballet, like seaweed caught in a current. To have someone invade that space and break the illusion that we were not alone but a pressing fleshing crowd of humanity en route to somewhere else was infringing on our private fantasy.
One lady across from us was touched enough to reach in her purse and give him a dollar. He said little and moved on, trying to get more customers. But the performance of HELP was too overwhelming for most of us to feel moved to respond. The man shuffled to the end of the carriage and before moving on to new targets, decided to take one last look, to assess our performance. He sensed we deserved this because, in our silence, we had assuredly assessed his.
“Good God People- What are you? What are you? You have no humanity- None of you. You know what you are? You are all garbage! Garbage. ” Then, to make sure we understood the respect he was paying us, he screamed a final obscenity,” Here’s what you can all do. Suck my d..k.”
Everyone looked stunned, as if Jeckyl had turned to Hyde. The lady, the generous one said,”I want my dollar back!” But he was gone.
His performance of “Help” over, and the evaluation delivered in even more memorable style than his demonstrative begging, Ahmed and I could not contain our amazement. We had failed him- yes, and that felt unnerving. But were we Garbage? Had we lost our humanity? Perhaps.
Perhaps he had failed us. Begging on the NYC Subway is an art too. it has a protocol that says- Don’t embarrass people into an unwilling generosity. And most of all, don’t leave in rage, which only lets us all off the hook for our hardened hearts. If you start your act with pathos, end with pathos, not with threats and extreme expressions of contempt.
For the rest of the day, we recounted the scene, as we always do because New York unfailingly gives us stories. One day, we said Ahmed might use this scene in a movie, or in a novel. It captured the alchemy of how, when you fail to induce generosity by guilt, you lapse to blaming and shaming.
Perhaps it also said something about the Victim story. Did we fail if we refused to accept his alibi of someone being so utterly helpless. Does one have to accept another’s self diminishment as the price of being able to help them?
Or did we misread it all? This was NYC after all, where the subway is a mobile theater space. What if this was performance art, and this was the Beatles hit, in another form. He could have been a student from the Acting Studio. He had the lyrics almost down.
Help, I need somebody,
Help, not just anybody,
Help, you know I need someone,
He did have long hair and he had a tenor voice. And the new Beatles movie has everyone talking. Next time, he might try “A Hard Day’s night” or even “All you need is love.” I would give him a dollar for that, for sure and not want it back. Perhaps I should have known better.