Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Begging or busking?

It seems not a day goes by without coming across someone asking me for money.  I'm not talking about the electricity supplier, the bank or the real estate agent, but random people in the street, cafes or trains.

Last night when travelling into the city by train, a man made an announcement to the carriage that he was a "homeless, freestyle rapper" and could we "spare any change".  I looked up briefly from my book ("Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) but quickly went back to it.  He spoke very loudly, but I didn't hear him rap as he swept through the carriage.  He was well-dressed, carried a very full backpack and the most fantastic thick, dark, curly hair. He had an accomplice and as the rapper moved to the next carriage, the accomplice was told to get off at the station and meet him in the middle of the next carriage. I didn't hear him rap.  I also didn't give him anything.  I would have liked to hear him rap.  Maybe if I had, I would have given him something, but his business model required the money first and then the art.

Last week, I came across Wayne who often sits outside David Jones in the Bourke Street Mall.  He's homeless and a talented artist.  He sits and draws intricate designs, some of which have been printed and made into blank greeting cards.  I bought 5 cards from him, delighted to have them in my stash next time I needed to send handwritten greetings of any kind.  I paid him about $12, I think.

There have been two occasions where I have succumbed to a story and given money to someone who is just asking.  They weren't offering to do anything for me. They just told me their story.

One was a woman who looked to be in her thirties.  I was sitting at a cafe table outside in Brisbane one evening.  She had a beaten down look about her, but otherwise looked like anyone else.  She asked me for $25 so she could get accommodation for the night.  I gave it to her.  I didn't even hesitate.  Was it because she was a woman?

The other was a young man whom I heard talking to another passenger on the train.  He wanted a small, odd amount of money - I can't remember how much exactly, but say it was $3.80.  He sat in the seat opposite me and started by saying: "I bet you're going to tell me to go away."

Something in that opening, just made me want to prove him wrong.  He looked to be about 17 and he looked like he'd been living hard.  One arm was in plaster and a sling.  He didn't look physically well.  He told me about his life - kicked out of home by his parents, jail a couple of times for stealing and drug offences.  Right now he was in a horrible boarding house where he didn't feel safe and was trying to find a way out.  He was in pain and his arm needed medical attention and he was terrified of going back to jail.  He didn't want to steal anymore.

Something about his story and the way he looked made me open my purse.  I didn't have $3.80 in change, but had a $5 note and gave that to him.  When he asked for my address so he could bring me the change, I immediately felt that I'd been fooled, perhaps even cheated.

I didn't give him my address, but I did leave him with the money.  Was he genuine or was he a clever salesman who knew just how to close the deal?  How can you tell?

Another night I was walking in the city with a male friend on the way home after an evening out, when a well-dressed woman came up to us and told this incredibly detailed story about how her car was in a nearby carpark but she had run out of petrol and needed $17 to buy petrol and get the car out before it closed.   She even went to so far as to ask for bank account details so she could return the money.

As she focussed all her attention on my companion I smelt something fishy.  When I considered where we were compared to where she claimed her car was parked it just seemed off.  I can't remember what the end of the encounter was, but I know I felt uneasy.

I am a regular giver to a charity and will happily sling change towards buskers I come across.  I buy the Big Issue when I see it.  I don't know what it is about people coming up and directly asking for money when I'm in a cafe or sitting on the train that makes me suspicious and uneasy about giving money.

On the way home today there was a man sitting in a city lane way, enjoying the sunshine.  As well as the milk crate he was sitting on, he had another on which he propped a portable CD player.  Dire Straits incongruously blared "Twisting by the Pool" as he clutched a stubby of beer and sang along.  I don't think he was busking.  I think he was just there.

People sitting nearby looked as though they would happily pay him to go away.  He wasn't a great singer, but he looked happy and harmless in his simple enjoyment.  And he wasn't asking anyone for anything.

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