I wrote this a long time ago. It first appeared in the Westchester Opinion section of the New York Times. Although little Tommy is all grown up, I wouldn’t say my point of view has changed very much.
By Jacque White Kochak
As I wove through the crowds in Grand Central Terminal on my way home from work one day, I saw a man carrying a child and pushing her stroller. The little girl was plump, and her white shirt stuck out below a red jacket. A tiny face peeked out below a fringe of curly bangs.
The man was young, with a light shadow of beard and an open, unmarked face. The stroller was fairly new and nondescript. Nothing about the two particularly spoke of poverty. Yet the man walked along, chanting in a singsong voice. The words he chanted, walking along with the crowds ignoring him: “Can you help me feed a homeless child?”
I don’t deny that I was a perfect mark. I have three children of my own, and this little girl was just the age of Tommy. A picture of homeless children in a newspaper is enough to set me sobbing. I have a soft spot for children, of course.
I can also, sometimes, almost, see myself in that picture. Not as the parent, but as the child. By the time my mother was 22 years old and my father was 24, they had had five children, all born in four years. When I was 4, my sister was 3, my brother was 2, and the twins were newborn. My brother had cystic fibrosis. My parents had no insurance. I was very young, but I think things got kind of tough. I remember eating a lot of dried beef gravy on biscuits for dinner, and one year wearing shoes that scarred my instep because they were too tight.
I’m from Kansas, so New York-style poverty is alien to me. But once, when I read about a young couple with their children living out of a dilapidated car as they chased chimerical jobs across the Southwest, I imagined how easy it might have been to slip between the cracks.
So, I followed the man, through the crowds, until I caught up with him. A squat little woman, probably with grown children of her own, stuffed a dollar in the man’s cup. “God bless you,” he said.
I stuffed another dollar in his cup. “God bless you,” he said again. I imagined the people around me sneering. What an easy mark I was! The man was probably using the little girl to provoke pity, then he would take the money and spend it on booze or drugs.
Then someone called out. “Why don’t you put her in foster care?” the voice said. The young man reeled, furious and sincere.
“Yeah, and never see her again!” he yelled at no one in particular. “Only a moron. . . .” and his voice trailed off. The little girl just looked at him, with that uncanny patience and innocence that toddlers show before they really understand what is going on around them.
I am an easy mark, but I am also fairly sophisticated about poverty. I once worked for an organization that raised money for orphanages, schools, feeding programs and a child-sponsorship program in Latin America. It was my job to break vulnerable hearts with heart-rending tales of malnourished children. I know the techniques.
I also have traveled extensively, and I know that beggars can be very businesslike. I have seen gypsy women in Madrid who make a living begging. They find a comfortable spot, perhaps in an overpass shielded from the sun, and spread themselves out. They bring along two or three dirty-faced kids for effect, and one wily woman even displayed an enlarged black-and-white poster of herself with six or seven more children of all sizes.
And I have dealt with pint-sized beggars in Santiago, Chile. Their alcoholic parents dress them in rags and send them out to beg. The parents keep out of sight; they know that the children will be more effective alone. The money the kids collect goes for liquor.
But I also remember another man I saw in Madrid. He huddled against a wall, his face hidden in shame. Next to his begging cup lay a hand-lettered sign. “I am a poor man from Andalusia,” the sign read. “I sold my house and came to the city to look for work. Now I can’t find work, and my children are hungry.” Somehow, I believed him.
What can I say? I’m an easy mark. I gambled that my dollar would go for a nourishing meal for the little girl, just the size of my Tom. And really, a dollar is such a little bit of money.
And then I looked at the people around me, the ones who would chide me for being a sucker. They hurried by, dressed in their heavy coats and their winter boots, maybe not prosperous, but surviving. Not one of them would have missed a dollar. Yet, many of them wouldn’t hesitate to drop 10, 20, even 100 times that measly dollar in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. And that made me mad.
I prefer my gamble, thank you.