So normally I have this whole thing about not giving people money for nothing. It stems, I think, from when I lived in Italy and I noticed no beggars on the streets during winter, but as soon as the sun (and the tourists) came out, suddenly there were all these poor people asking everyone for money! I spoke to a few Italians about it and they all said that most of the beggars aren’t actually beggars and that you should never give them money. So I became a bit of a hard-arse, and developed this policy that I wouldn’t give anyone money for doing nothing.
Now, living in London, I maintain that policy. Beggars here are pretty clever; they ask you for ‘just 25p’, a specific and small amount, so it sounds somehow more legitimate. But for me it’s the principle, I just don’t hand it out for nothing. And it’s not because I’m greedy with money, I’m not; I don’t have much myself and with my boyfriend currently out of work, money is very, very tight.
Anyway, so yesterday I was standing outside St James Park tube station, about to go in, and this fairly young but quite rugged-looking guy with a quilt bundled up on his back comes up to me. I knew he was going to approach as I made the mistake of making eye contact a few seconds before. He had lovely bright blue eyes, quite a sweet demeanour, although it was clear he was doing it a bit tough. I was waiting for the usual ‘can I have…’ question, but this guy began with the ‘sorry to disturb you…’ line. The problem was, he couldn’t spit it out! He obviously didn’t speak English as a first language, and he was a bit out of it, wanted to be more expressive than he could be. He began to speak, but just couldn’t tell me what he wanted to say. I wanted to ask him to ‘spit it out’, but I thought better of it, realising that, a) it would mean I want to enter into a dialogue, and b) he probably wouldn’t understand an idiom like that. So I looked him straight in the eye and waited. He stammered something about being a ‘bloody stupid Eastern European’ (himself) and eventually managed to articluate his apology for disturbing my ‘break’, or whatever if was he thought I was doing, and then promptly asked for 5p. It took him so long to get the words out that I found myself considering giving it to him – his eyes were so bright and I felt like he needed something, a bit of a lift, some encouragement. It seemed like he had something important to contribute, but for some reason hadn’t ever been able to do it. I hesitated momentarily, gave him the time to get his words out, and then said I don’t have any money, whereupon he went and hassled two guys standing nearby.
I quickly rushed inside the station, as if the interaction had made no impact upon me, and jumped on the next tube. As the train sped away, I felt an immense sense of guilt for not giving him the measley 5p (about 12 cents, I thought, immediately converting to Aussie currency). What was 5p to me? Wouldn’t it be so much more to him? Why was he asking for such a tiny amount? He phrased the question with, ‘I’m short 5p…’, making it sound like he needed that last little bit to make up a train fare, but I thought maybe it was something else, a pack of cigarettes, a coffee, something stronger… It took me a good while to get rid of that guilty feeling, and I found myself vowing to give money to the next person who asks; which is not what I’ll do, but if someone had caught me in that moment, I would have. And then I’d probably have felt silly for giving away money that I myself needed.