Musical Monday vol 4.: the sound of the streets

Yesterday was an unseasonably beautiful day, so it was with a light heart that I took the bus down to State street. My goal was to get all my major gift shopping (which consists of books, books and more books) done in one fell swoop. The shopping for minor gifts I can take care of a little closer to the holiday. Me, actually buying gifts to give to other people for a change! Parts of turning slowly into a grownup are kind of fun. :)

Of course, I was not the only one who had that idea. State street is a tourist destination even for locals, as landmark businesses put up gaudy Xmas-themed display windows so that people from out of town or parents with children in tow can have something shiny to photograph one another standing in front of. In theory I suppose the displays also entice people into the stores to buy things, but I've never been so enticed myself, so I can't be sure.

Let's face it. Holiday shopping can be fun to do, but it is extremely boring to read about someone else's holiday shopping. Or even read about somebody else watching yet a third party's holiday shopping. So instead, I'm going to write about the people who provide the real sounds of the season--sounds that last all winter and all summer too, if you're in a place where they can be heard. People who need gifts as much as or more than anybody, but for whom we are all unlikely to get them. Because however many we bought, it would never ever ever be enough.

Much more interesting than the shoppers down on State street were the street people. Whether slurring the same sentence over and over to ask for money, making beautiful music to ask for money, or anything in between, downtown Chicago has a sound as distinctive as its skyline, in part because of them. Many more than you'd usually see even on a weekday, these folks were there to get what they could from the shoppers the same way the shoppers were there to get what they could of the sights and stores. Firstly, there were the drum kids. These are four or five young men with drumsticks and upturned buckets who usually perform on the sidewalk near the Art Institute in summer. They are awesome at drumming, and I did regret not having any cash to give them. There was also a guy with a trumpet playing carols. Who had been replaced, by the time I left the store, by a guy singing them in a surprisingly classical-sounding tenor. Another man, on a different corner, tried his hand at Xmas music with a saxophone but wasn't quite as good. Then there were four or five people begging, either sitting cross-legged on the ground or sitting in lawn chairs with blankets wrapped around their legs. They would hold up signs bearing crudely-written messages like "JUST HUNGRY" or "please help - God bless", or by calling out their message repeatedly; "please help me out with a couple dollars, I got no place to stay, please help..."

Normally, downtown on a winter weekday during business rush hours, you'll find one person begging per two-to-three square block area. Street performers, that is, those who play instruments, sing, or drum on upturned buckets, are less common. They occur maybe once in a six-to-seven square block area, and are most likely to be found on the east side of the river--basically where someone coming from the financial distract would have to cross a bridge in order to get to the Metra station. In fact, the heaviest concentration of street people is always between the most populous office buildings and the major mass transit stations. I assume that people who take Metra (the trains that go out to the suburbs) have looser pockets than people who take the CTA (which stays inside the city limits). This could be because people who live in the suburbs, on average, make more money than whose who live within the city limits, or maybe that street people simply think they do. Then again, if a significant portion of your living comes from begging, you probably can't afford to have illusions about that sort of thing.

My favorite of all of them is a man me and Dave call "bridge guy". (I'm not counting Bernie, since he's not a performer; he's more like a kind of a friend I don't see very often anymore cause I don't work in his neighborhood. Man, I hope he's okay. Weather is evil today and he's not getting any younger.) Bridge Guy works the Madison street bridge by the Lyric Opera center like it's his regular job. Over the years, working at different places and passing the bridge at different times, I'm pretty sure he sits on the bridge Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, morning and evening rush. Doubtless he's got another gig somewhere else in the city on the other days. Weekends I think he may follow other events around the city. The first time we saw Pearl Jam at the United Center, he was outside with his drums, going ba-ba-badadada-dum "Pearl Jam!" Alas, I didn't see him on State street. Who knows, maybe he was there Saturday, and I missed him.

The concentration is higher overall in the summer, but the ratio changes too. That is, in the summer, you're more likely to see a guy playing a tamborine or a saxophone, or just calling something loud and repetitive to get your attention. The "pay to make the guy go away" principle is used differently by different people, but in the summer everyone is a little more casual and more innovative because they don't have quite as much to lose. Whereas in the winter, you're more likely to see a lady all bundled up against the cold, holding an equally bundled-up toddler, calling out loudly in front of a retail location from which people are likely to emerge holding change or small bills. There, the presence of the child is supposed to guilt you into giving, because who wants to see a child have to be cold or hungry?

It's an ecological thing, when you think about it. There's a certain amount of money that people are willing or able to part with on sight. There's a greater number of people who desperately need that money in order to obtain food and shelter. And a much, much greater number who don't necessarily need it to keep from starving or freezing, but would be able to reduce the hardship of their situation slightly if they had it. The people who need it less desperately are able to ask for it more convincingly, and so get a greater proportion of the total charity dollars available at street level. But the thing to keep in mind when you're out on the sidewalk in winter (or summer) is that you, the non-street-person, really have no way of knowing who is which.

When I first started coming downtown on a regular basis, back in the day, I couldn't say no to anyone. Couldn't bear to. How could I possibly hold back something somebody else obviously needs, when it won't make my life all that much worse not to have it? What kind of a horrible person could say no? What if I was in their situation, and I had to watch me say no to me over and over?

Those feelings never really go away. They just get shoved backwards, covered over.

First by distrust. Say you give some money to a lady who says she needs it for the bus, then she drags the kid a few steps further along the street to have her ask the next person the exact same thing. And the one after that, and the one after that too. Then you think about it, and you think, "well, if she'd asked me for $80 to take him to the doctor, I wouldn't have had it, and maybe she's got to lie in order to get people to believe her." Or maybe she's already got a job and just goes around begging for extra money for booze or whatever. Eventually you realize that no matter how creepy somebody looks, they could very easily be using their begging income for totally legit purposes. And no matter how honestly distressed they look, they could be using that money for something you'd disapproave of. So you can't use your preferred ways for them to spend the money as a reason to give or not give, not really. Because you're only human, not omniscient, and you have no way of knowing. If your conscience won't let you allow the possibility of them spending it on something you'd rather they not have, but also won't let you do nothing, you get them food. A lot of people do this. Me, I like giving 'em money, when I give. Because I figure a person needs a lot more things than food in life, and if I'm giving them enough of the benefit of the doubt to give anything, I'd rather let them choose and hope for the best.

Second by habituation. You get used to seeing street people around, until you stop really seeing them. They become part of the landscape, as much as the cars on the street or the trains on the tracks. So you don't feel them tugging on your conscience because you don't see people, just stationary objects to be avoided. A certain amount of this is unavoidable. But at the same time it is the most dehumanizing for everybody. It's bad enough when you're part of a stream of people all heading from one place to another, ignoring one another out of politeness. Day after day of that and it does make you kind of lonely, just another face in the crowd. But in that situation, if two people bump into each other, they both apologize and smile at each other before moving on. Or if someone drops a glove, three people will say, "hey, sir/ma'am, you dropped this!" and pick it up for them. But a street person in the middle of a crowd of commuters might as well be invisible. Which, if any of my much milder experiences with social invisibility are a baseline, is probably fun for about the first three minutes, ironic for the next seven, relentlessly soul-crushing for the following eight to twelve hours. After which the soul-crushing continues but you are too angry or numb or exhausted to notice. And yet, if you, me, the non-beggar individual in question were to give money or food or something to everyone who asked for it, we'd be broke very quickly. Maybe not to the point where we were out on the street begging ourselves. But definitely to the point where we or the people for whom we have accepted responsibility would be deprived of things we actually did need.

All of which to say, if you're in a situation where you think you can strike up a conversation with a street person but also have a reasonable way to end it when it gets uncomfortable, do it. It is important to be alert, though, even though it's a rare beggar who will actually do something crazy. Just like it's a very rare regular commuter who will actually do something dangerous. I think the proportions aren't as far off as people seem to think.
Beggars are generally pretty lonely people. Lonely and very proud, in a brittle sort of way. It takes an immense pride or a grudge, somewhere in there, to be able to ask strangers for money every day and not crumble under their mass mute rejection. Add to that the hope buried deep in the mind of every human being that every person we see who seems better off than ourselves is secretly a super-rich benefactor who will shower us with wealth and take away all our problems if only we can ask in the right way. You see how this can make for some extremely sticky situations if you haven't planned your conversation exit strategy in advance.

A dollar or two bucks or whatever is good for a start; it normalizes the situation so that they're not left hanging thinking you're going to give them something when you actually aren't. So do start the conversation off with some money, or a sandwich or whatever your conscience lets you give. Unless they're your local neighborhood bum and you and they both know that you see them all the time and you're totally going to hook them up next time, in which case it's not as rude. (Provided you actually DO hook them up next time.) Because even if somebody makes their living begging on the street, it's important to occasionally be able to talk to someone who looks you in the eye and treats you like a human.

As for when you should give, conversation or no conversation, that I can't tell you. Everybody's got their own strategy. When I worked in Bernie's neighborhood I'd give him a dollar or so every time I saw him and had it on me, and didn't give other people squat. Now I work in a neighborhood where we don't so much have a regular guy, so I give more haphazardly, to whomever's around and catches my eye when I happen to have an extra buck on me. Or not. I figure if I behave randomly I'm not altering the economic homeostasis too much. That is, I by myself am not driving out anyone who was there already, nor am I drawing in anybody who wasn't going to be coming in anyway. All I can do is keep an even keel, be nice to people when I get the chance to do so, and hope the tiny amounts of assistance I provide go where they are most needed.

But man, sometimes Xmas is depressing.


Amber E said...

Hi Sweetie,
Awww, we should go shopping sometime. BTW you have fascinating insights on the human condition.

Fiat Lex said...

Thanky hon! I am glad you found interesting.

Yes, we should go shopping. The only questions I have are where, when, and regular or thrift?


kisekileia said...

I try to at least make eye contact with and smile at most of the beggars/homeless people I see. Even if I'm not giving them anything (which is the case most of the time, because I'm late a lot and my financial situation come May is rather precarious), I want to at least acknowledge them as PEOPLE.