Not too long ago, I wrote about panhandlers on the subway. A passionate and incredibly thoughtful discussion ensued. (Seriously, read the comments and behold the wisdom of the internet.)
My point of view was that I just can’t help it. Especially around the holidays. I feel like people who need help, need help. And there are times that I am equipped to give help. But something’s changed lately. Something beyond the increasing humidty in the NYC transit system and the ensuing increased grumpiness of NYC transit system passengers.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of women walking from car to car, panhandling.
They all have babies in carriers.
The first time I saw it, I was moved to tears. I simply can’t imagine the agony of having no choice but to spend your days on the smelly subway with a newborn, hoping for some money for diapers or food. It gives me pause when you think how many women spent weeks (weeks!) debating whether a stupid magazine cover headline undermines our self-esteem.
I wonder whether a woman with no home and no food and no legal source of income believes she’s “mom enough.”
But I digress.
The next time I saw a mother panhandling with a very young baby sleeping on her chest, I also felt compassionate, teary, needing to help.
But in the last month or so, I’ve seen no less than a dozen women, each traipsing through the moving cars carrying newborns, all wearing the same weary, glazed look, with a similarly stilted speech about needing food for the baby and how hard it is to be doing this.
My giving has slowed.
Something seems…off to me. Mother’s instinct?
Several days ago, one of these women walked through a car and two passengers across from me grew visibly angry. Red-faced and nearly shaking, one of the women said loudly enough for anyone who would listen, “that disgusts me. That’s sick! That woman should be arrested for using her child like that!”
I realized that her outburst echoed something I was feeling deeply buried in my heart, for better or for worse.
in our culture, the narrative of “the deserving poor” carries a lot of weight. and when it comes to homelessness and panhandling, it invites those of us being asked to stand in judgement of whether someone is deserving enough…i decided i couldn’t judge based on whether THEY were deserving. to me, any person deserves to be acknowledged, treated as human.
Or this one from Jaelithe:
What’s worse: to be suckered out of a dollar or two by a con, or to walk right past a hungry homeless person, warily clutching the cash you’ll later spend on a latte you don’t actually need?
And because I’m a contrarian from time to time (just to keep me from completely collapsing into lemming-like yuppiedom), I looked squarely at that red-faced angry passenger, then pulled a five dollar bill out of my bag. The same cost of a vanilla latte I’d pee out 30 minutes later.
“Oh bless you!” the panhandling woman said with more feeling in her voice than I thought her capable of. “Bless you, bless you.”
But still, something didn’t feel right about it. My head is spinning with theories, some admittedly absurd. I’m wondering if these young women are really mothers. I’m wondering if they’re borrowing babies. I’m wondering if they’re being put up to it by some nefarious, evil men in their lives, Slumdog Millionaire-style, taking turns with one or two real babies to garner sympathy. I’m wondering why, now, should a rash of panhandling new mothers find their way into the subway system? Then, I’m wondering if something significant has changed in our shelter system that has sent so many legitimate mothers out to beg all at once.
Is the panhandler helping or exploiting her baby? Does that 3 month-old baby deserve to be with her mother no matter what? Or does she deserve the chance at a better life, not one spent trying to sleep through deafening screech of trains in a windowless, airless, cavernous tunnel?
And, if so, who am I to judge what would constitute a better life? (Even if we might all agree that this particular one is less than ideal.)
I am wildly conflicted here. What say you, oh wise internet?
Thanks Huffington Post for including this in Parenthesis: the best of the parenting blogosphere. I’m right honored.