Tuesday, January 23, 2007

These DC streets

As DC residents, one of the issues that we all have to come to terms with is how to handle the daily requests for money from street beggars. They are as much a part of DC’s urban landscape as the hotdog stands, the museums, the wide sidewalks, the square buildings, and the ubiquitous identification badges, with one key difference: they don’t stay in the background. DC’s street people are experienced enough to realize that being successful in their business doesn’t involve letting you pass them by unsolicited.

We all probably have different strategies and philosophies when it comes to dealing with them, and my approach has been evolving. When I first moved here a year and a half ago, I made regular contributions to their coffers. I figured that anybody who needed a dollar badly enough to ask me for it probably needed it more than I did, and I never seemed to miss the money after giving it away. The thought that the person might spend it on alcohol or drugs never bothered me that much; after all, they also needed money for food, clothes, and other important things. Gradually, though, I came to feel overwhelmed by all of the requests for money. Walking to and from work, I would pass at least a dozen or so beggars, and at one point I realized that walking had become more expensive than riding the metro. Mind you, I wasn’t giving money to every person along my path, but giving even to a fraction of them was adding up. Taking walks around the city in the evening, one of my favorite things to do, had become not only expensive, but mentally and emotionally exhausting. I was tired of evaluating all of these cases to determine their merit and constantly having to brace myself for withholding aid from people. I wasn’t willing to give up my walks; instead, I stopped the giving. I figured I’d let my DC tax dollars do the work for a while – I knew from working with indigent patients in the hospital that multiple shelters, soup kitchens, and other services are available throughout the city for those in need.

I let myself become hardened. One of the things that I overcame was the fundamental need to be polite. I realized that the best beggars were preying on my politeness, manipulating it by dragging me through their stories, shaking my hand, or buddying up to me in ways that made it extremely difficult for me later to refuse them money. I came to see, though, that as strangers doing these things to me, they were the ones who were behaving badly, who were breaching etiquette. I didn’t need to be polite, or to extend them the courtesy of hearing them out just so that they could take advantage of it. I still acknowledged people, but I no longer listened to their requests; “sorry,” became my one-word response.

The unfortunate consequence of the hardened me was that, like most Washingtonians, I became difficult to approach in the street. Unless I could see that you were clearly either lost or a tourist, I was not going to stop for you. A few weeks ago when I was out for a walk with my brother, we passed a group of three young teenage girls on a corner block who appeared to be just hanging out. As we walked by, though, one of them called out to me, “Sir, would you be willing to contribute to our school band fundraiser?”
“Sorry,” was my automatic response. I only took one more step before I turned back around.
“Did you say school band?” I asked, delighted.
The girls nodded.
“Hey, I was the captain of my high school band. What instruments do you guys play?”
“The clarinet,” one offered.
“Me too.”
“The flute,” said the third, shyly.
“Do you guys march?”
“Yeah,” said the first, with the other two nodding in agreement.
“Well, I played the trombone. I’m from Alaska and it was too cold for us to have a marching band, but we played at the basketball games.”
They smiled and I signed my name on their list of donors.

The nice thing about refusing all routine street requests for money is that it frees you to give when you really want to. Of course, these girls were band members, not street beggars, but to me the point was that I was giving freely, not out of awkwardness, guilt, or undue pressure. The upside of the new me, it turned out, was that I could be a virtual ATM when I felt like it.

Sometime thereafter, I was walking around downtown on a day off, and a pleasant-mannered, pleasant-appearing, middle-aged man approached me, asking for a second of my time. He hated to bother me, he said, but he had just rolled into town from North Carolina, and he was going to have surgery here in a few days, but the hospital (which happened to be one of the hospitals at which I rotate) hadn’t helped him to arrange accommodations. It was two days before he would be able to check into the hospital, and he had no money and no place to stay. He wondered if I wouldn’t be able to help him out.

I didn’t share with him that I was a doctor at the hospital where he would be having his surgery in a few days and that for all I knew I would be his doctor, or that he had somehow connected with a boyhood fantasy of mine that there is something romantic to the notion of hopping on a bus to Washington without a penny to your name or any definite plans. The money, however, never flowed so easily.
“Sure, I’d be happy to help you out. You’d have thought the hospital would have done more about the arrangements.”

I’m not sure that I’ve arrived at any ultimate destination in terms of handling street solicitations, but I have come now to a comfortable place. Being able to give on my own terms signals not only that I've become more secure with myself, but that I’ve settled upon a harmonious way of living with the other people who populate these DC streets. Necessarily so, it’s a way that respects both their humanity and my own integrity.