BeggarFriday night, I took the tube home after drinks with some co-workers.  It was kind of an ill-advised evening, because I was tired and I’d had five pints (I know full well – after numerous studied trials and experimentations over the course of many months – that my personal London-drinking limit should be three pints, as the brew here is stronger than our watered-down pish from home).  At any rate, my American friend and I realized we’d surpassed giddy buzziness around the fourth drink, when a discussion as to how hillbillies talk on meth (it involved impressions)* led to ten minutes of giggle-fits and then eventually dissolved into fatigue.

So five pints in, I called it a night and was trudging from my tube stop towards the flat, when I passed a woman begging in front of my local Tesco.  You can’t walk through London without encountering dozens of beggars, especially at the doors of grocery stores, and if you’re standing in front of a bar having drinks, you can reasonably expect to be hit up by three people selling “The Big Issue” and at least one perky young volunteer in a cancer charity tee-shirt, all scrapping for your change.  Basically, you become inured to it after a while.  You learn to keep a pocket full of ten- and twenty-pence pieces, which you’ll hand off to someone or rattle into a bucket with hardly a moment’s thought – that is, if they’re polite.  Plenty of beggars have passed the “thanks and God bless” phase and headed straight into surly entitlement, and those are the people who piss you off. 

So I passed this woman, who appeared to be in her forties and fairly toothless in a hard-knocks kind of way, and she called out for change as as I strolled by her.  I kept walking, but then recalled that I’d failed to pay my public drinking tax of earlier in the evening, having already turned away two scruffy men proferring magazines.  Seeing as she was outside Tesco, I doubled back, thinking I would pop in and pick her up a bottled water and a pre-made sandwich.  This is a tactic I used to employ regularly at home, when I wasn’t accosted quite so regularly; while the mayor of my city discouraged begging and urged citizens to instead contribute money to homeless shelters (and he was a righteous mayor), I was never averse to spending a couple of bucks on food or water for someone sitting out in the heat.

I also admit that I am more susceptible to female beggars, or more inclined to stop for them, anyway – aside from the criminally-genius beggar in my neighborhood who carries a guitar and a cat on a leash (I have given this guy at least 20 quid, I swear, because that damn cat is so cute and sits on his shoulder while he plays, and he always catches me about an hour before closing when I’m at my most generous).

I dropped down and asked if I could buy her a sandwich, no big thing, figuring it would cost me two minutes and less than three pounds.  Instead, she said she’d love a Subway, with chicken, pepperoni, and ham.

Subway was a good few minutes out of my way, and I was really itching to get home, but what was I going to do?  Rescind the offer?  Damn it, no, so I walked down to Subway, and ordered her a six-inch sandwich with her desired fillings, and convinced the server to give me a slather of mayonnaise in a soup cup, because I didn’t know what condiments my “friend” would want.  Including a bottled water (honestly, you can’t hand someone a sandwich without a drink), it totaled nearly $10.  Subway is expensive here, but I maintain that the quality of the sandwiches is far better than in the States.

I walked back down the road a few minutes later, and found her stationed where I’d left her.  “Here you go, ” I said when I hunkered down.  “As ordered, and I’ve brought you mayo and a knife, because I personally like mayo on a Subway but didn’t know your preference.”

“Yeah, mayo’s good, ” she replied.  “But I yelled down the street at you to get some onions, guess you didn’t hear.  Thanks, anyway.”

So that was that.  Initially feeling a little dejected, I made off for home after this fifteen-minute diversion, and began to chuckle to myself.  What did I expect?  That she’d look me in the eyes and tell me I’d saved her from a hungry night on the cold, dark streets?  She was begging, I stopped and asked if I could buy her some food, and she told me exactly what she wanted – a Subway, hardly an extravagance.   The purchase of a sandwich does not a saint make, and it’s stupid to ask for something more, even recognition.  I was actually a little disappointed in myself for feeling put out about it.  The reward is knowing that I went ever so slightly out of my way to give another human being a meal, and that that person has a meal.

I’m hardly one to pay heed to Bible lessons, but I’ve always recalled the story from childhood about the Pharisees and false charity.  There shouldn’t be degrees of charity, which achieve the same functional result, but it’s arguable that anonymous charity is the most “pure” of heart (and I realize that by even describing this small encounter, I’m veering away from the meaning of the act and towards seeking recognition of personal “goodness”).

I think it’s very human, though, to look for that metaphorical pat-on-the-head, whether you’ve given years of your life to working with the disenfranchised, joined the Peace Corp, made a donation to Planned Parenthood, or just bought someone a sandwich.  And also, I think this is a good thing; while I may have a profound respect for someone who makes an anonymous, unheralded donation, it doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the many contributions people make in their own names or in the names of loved ones.  Charity is something to be celebrated, whatever the origination.  So please feel free to share thoughts in the comments, or explain the charities that drive you personally.

*We’re both Southerners and were trying to figure out how to speed up our drawl in such a way that our Australian buddies couldn’t understand our speech patterns, leading to “hillbilly on meth.”  Trust, it was hilarious at the time, inside our brains.

(Image from John Goto’s “Gilt City” series:  more excellent images here.)