Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Pitch

Even though it's technically illegal, and signs pointing this out are at nearly every subway station, people asking for money are a part of most New Yorkers' subway rides. I've witnessed only two techniques: The Sob Story and the Music for Passengers' Enjoyment. The reason for this lack of variation in the City of Creativity is probably because a moving subway car is a tough spot to show off one's sword-juggling or acrobatics skills (though I've seen this too). Once the subway doors slide shut and the solicitor is assured a captive audience, they begin their act. The sob stories invariably start with "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to bother you, but..." The people may differ, but those exact nine words are always used, as if they were decided upon at a Panhandlers' Union meeting some time ago. The musicians simply break out their instruments and play a song, usually at a prestissimo tempo to allow time for hat-passing before the train reaches its next stop.

Each train, I'm sure, has its unique flavor of panhandlers. My train, the 7 train, passes through several Hispanic neighborhoods. The sob stories are often in Spanish and the musicians play mariachi music or Peruvian panpipes. I don't understand Spanish or particularly enjoy panpipes, so I figure it lets me off the hook. Still, I'll give some change or a dollar to most folks. I do this because these people don't seem to make more than a couple bucks per car - not much for laying your pride on the line in front of a subway car full of strangers.

One night, as I was boarding the train at Grand Central Station, a man got in behind me with one of the most horrible visages I've ever seen. It looked as if his face had half-melted, or wilted in some way, like a plucked flower left in the sun. I could see that all the passengers in the car were covertly trying to stare at the man's face, and secretly wondering what the hell might have happened to him.

As we entered the tunnel under the East River, he gave The Pitch. I think he started with that customary nine-word intro, but due to the echoes from the tunnel, or his accent, or maybe the deformed shape of his mouth, no one could understand a word he was saying. When he finished talking, he started making his way around the car for money, and every single person on that car reached into their pockets and gave him something. People were getting up out of their seats and walking across the car to give this unfortunate man their money. They say that you can tell the native New Yorkers from the transplants because only the latter give money to panhandlers. Native or not, everyone in that car was a human being, and they all showed a side of themselves that New York is said to strip out of people who live there too long.

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