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How would you choose to end the sentence given those four options? Would you answer with cupcakes? Is it me asking the question or is someone requesting my response? I could lend some clues to help you arrive at the correct answer. And even more telling is that if you know me, you know where I live and location has a role in the context of the question. At the same time though, you may also know that I love cupcakes and by me asking for 50 of them wouldn’t be unreasonable. So what is it then?

Before I provide the correct answer I’ll start by saying this: if money grew on trees, you would still find people asking for it. You know the old adage, “I wish money grew on trees”, well, I think that even if it did grow on trees we would still find a countable number of people still wishing the same thing or more of it. Instead of it growing on trees they would confess a hope for it appearing underneath their pillow (sort of like the tooth fairy situation), or that the lottery ensure we’d all be rich (now that’s not realistic but neither is Palin becoming president)…there’s also the thought that perhaps all the debt and bills one is responsible for becomes obsolete so the money currently in our possession can be used toward entertainment and fun. For some of us that translates into buying books, taking trips or purchasing the latest product from the creative technicals, Apple. Or again, knowing me, I might buy 50 cupcakes from Butterlane. Really. Don’t have you convinced, ‘eh?

For those of you who chose the answer “cents” – you are correct. The word correctly completing the sentence is, “Excuse me miss, do you have 50 cents?” (I apologize if this ‘complete the sentence’ is reminding you of studying for any graduate entrance exams!) This question met my ears this past Sunday afternoon as I returned from Hoboken, New Jersey – sort of lost in thought, on a halfway high from just shooting some cover photos for the Brooklyn-based band Cedric Needs Us, and happily walking back to the apartment in balmy spring-like temperatures.

Compared to my days in Korea when I could nearly anticipate no one approaching me to ask a question, or if they did, it’s more than likely I wouldn’t understand it unless they questioned the closest pharmacy, coffee shop or subway station. Yet since returning to the United States I’ve welcomed questions from strangers with open arms. Well, not entirely but you get the picture – I enjoy conversations that fill a void where silence or impatient waiting would otherwise stand. So when this young woman was sitting on a ledge this past Sunday – sans book or bag – I didn’t think twice as I approached her. The key piece to this encounter though was not her question nor my answer, but the fact that I didn’t allow her to finish speaking. I let her sentence end with my answer, “No. I’m sorry.” And as soon as I walked away, I felt I’d acted wrongly and something felt amiss…what if she wasn’t asking for money? What if the 50 cents I assumed she was asking for was actually 50 items of something entirely unrelated to the familiar money-asking script? My gait slowed on that occasion and for a few seconds, I actually debated going back to ask her what it was she wanted. To let her finish her sentence. I didn’t though, I continued walking the 60 steps to my building and to this day, ruminate on my hastiness.

Perhaps context as previously mentioned had something to do with my quick reply. And the likelihood she was asking for 50 items of anything is very slim (it’s not like this conversation occurred in a fabrics and crafts shop where the patron needed sequins). But it’s no excuse, at least I’m having a hard time finding one. And it’s no justification to say that I’m not the only one preventing a potentially innocuous individual from exercising their right to speech. I have often been walking with people and this same situation strikes us – someone asking for money and before they’re able to utter their request for money, we’ve already answered, walked beyond echoes of their plea and perhaps s/he’s moved onto the next person. It’s not an uncommon occurrence living in cities, and at least not NYC in an urban sphere where “time is money” is no falsehood, she could, as my boyfriend pointed out, have moved onto the next person willing to give her money. And we, in our ever-enduring state to be comfortable, to be successful, to pay our bills and/or afford the luxuries of city-living (and by luxuries I mean eating out, a movie here or there, an entrance fee into a museum and/or cover to see a local band) are constantly on the move – physically and mentally – pondering over income-generating ideas.

Does one individual asking for money compare with say, the Irish banks –  institutions in which people invest and trust? Should we feel more compelled to give one body money over the other? If financial businesses receiving upwards of $80 billion ask for help and we’re willing to give them money, invest again after a period of recovery, shouldn’t we be willing to give a mere 50 cents to a young man/woman? That, I don’t know.

The thing is, and I feel many would support this notion, is that one does not need to be on the street asking for money outright. NYC-wise, there are a plethora of ways to access economic assistance. The Food Bank of NYC offers programs addressing more than food, and the Salvation Army is possibly the best known resource nation-wide for those seeking financial and domestic support. Faith-based organizations, though not my forte and probably starved for money much like many other non-profits and grant-supported organizations are also a viable option when a situation becomes desperate. There’s also the uncertainty that if you did provide 50 cents or 1 dollar  to person A, who knows how they would use the money. It’s not to say we all spend our earnings in the wisest manner ($5 Starbucks anyone?), but sometimes our vices somehow take control (despite us being in control of our decisions) and we justify purchases through a series of psychological devices. I just did it today, I’m sure I didn’t have to use all $10 of my Border’s bucks and spend an additional $4 to cover the total, but that seemed the more logical choice than let the “free” dollars they sent me go to waste.

In my never-ending quandary over what to assume and what not to…I will remain in this questionable state. In this case, I assumed she was going to ask for money…when a man or woman with a map or cell phone stand at the corner of an intersection glancing between the street signs and their map tools, I would’ve assumed they approached me to ask for directions. Some might say this is a scenario with a clear ending. I’d like to think that, but I can’t. And I can’t go ahead preventing people from speaking and finishing their sentences. Because one day money may grow on trees, as may cupcakes…why make the assumption otherwise? And thus, why should I do the same?

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8 thoughts on “excuse me miss, do you have 50…

  1. In your explanation of your question you said it might be you asking the question. My first reaction is, “who cares what the end of the sentence is, why are you calling me miss?”. My second reaction is nicely written post.

  2. Very good post, and something I’ve always struggled with down here in DC.

    I see so many people asking for money — and a growing number I think with the downturn in the economy — and I can’t help but to wonder their story.

    How did they get here, to this point? Are they homeless, on the brink, or just trying to make ends meet? Was it drugs/alcohol, mental health issues, physical injuries, or simply a spiral of misfortune they couldn’t stop, a combination of things? Behind that person on the street is a story, a history, a voice, a name. And we so rarely stop to ask.

    And then, you see a story like that of Ted Williams (the goldon voiced radio DJ), and it resonates with the thoughts that follow me after one of these encounters – albeit his story may be particularly unique.

    I can’t help but to wonder, and sometimes I can’t help myself but to ask.

    There was a homeless man who used to hang out on the corner near my office building. His name is Ward. If I treated myself to a Friday coffee I’d ask him if he’d like something or simply pick up what I came to learn was his favorite – a hot chocolate. Or take him into Pot Belly’s for a sandwhich so he could warm up or cool down. And sometimes, I just said “hi”, to acknowledge his existence. These were opportunities not just to help someone out but to connect with someone. He got there because he’d lost his job as a cook a few years before and then his mother with whom he had live passed away and he couldn’t make ends meet on his own. He has aunts and cousin’s in the city, they invite him over for the holidays sometimes.

    But this past summer, he stopped spending time at the corner. Where he went to I don’t know, though I must admit I wonder and even worry a bit – Is he ok? Did he find a way off the streets, perhaps family took him in, or perhaps the streets “got him.”

    And I can’t help but to lament how quickly this can happen to people and even how I can envision it happening to a few people I know. I think even more so in larger cities because there’s so much anonymity, where as in smaller cities/communities I think families and friends are sometimes closer and more able to step in to help prevent rock bottom.

    And I think in larger cities, we’re more prone to grow a thicker skin — you can’t save everybody right? And like you point out, we can’t help the cynisism from creeping in — what are they going to spend it on. You know, a bag of heroin only costs $5, they could get that together and go shoot up.

    So, I too, have sometimes walked away before the panhandler has asked the question. And can’t help but feel a little shame as I walk by. Maybe chased by a shot of guilt for realizing I have so much more than they do, that I can go waste money on Starbucks, or a cupcake, or any number of things. Sometimes I try to pacify myself with an “I work hard, I deserve it.” But in reality, I know the only thing we all “deserve” in this world is our life, the rest of it’s just borrowed until we leave this existence behind.

    And so I just try to always remember that even if I don’t have money to give or time to stop and communicate, there’s still a name behind that ask.

    Alright, more than enough of my thoughts on that! Clearly, your post spoke to me.

    • I appreciate your long reply, Crystal!

      As some people would say, at least you’re conscious of your actions, you give thought to things and even if decisions or answers are quickly given sometimes, I’m sure it makes you think what to do when you’re in a situation like that next time. At least I know for myself it will.

      Sort of on the topic, and not, there is a project in the works called, “Bedrooms of the Fallen.” Basically it’s about a photographer who is taken photographs of the bedrooms of soldiers who’ve died in war in the Middle East in the past x number of years (I unfortunately can’t recall this detail). Anyways, one of his messages behind the project is the idea of not wanting to forget these people who are no longer physically with us. He says they have names too and should not be forgotten. It’s true, and just as you commented….names fall behind these faces…(which reminds me of an article I read in the NYT last year about Haiti’s earthquake soon after it happened and how there were so many faces w/o names)…

      If you don’t see Ward again, perhaps it’s because he’s found more comfortable ground to rest his feet; I hope.

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