Bag full of beer cans

Not long ago I left the house on my way to the mall with a huge bag of recycling — I’d been away for a while, and Matt had accumulated a lot of beer cans. Usually it falls to me to take them to the store, where I slip the cans or plastic bottles into a collection machine. Returning each can earns 1 kronor (kr or SEK); a large plastic bottle gets 2 kr.

All summer long, I’ve seen Roma men walking the streets carrying large plastic bags filled with aluminum cans and plastic bottles. They reach into the trash cans around town to pull out the recycling that others have nonchalantly tossed in the garbage.

Recycling in Sweden is not nearly as precise as in Switzerland, where I was traveling last month. I was reminded of the fastidiousness of that system as I walked by the neatly stacked paper, carefully tied with twine and sitting outside apartment buildings. People take their recycling to centrally located bins, only during daylight hours so that they do not disturb the neighbors with the noise. Here, there are central bins (I’ve even seen a recycling truck driver chastise some Roma men for trying to get into the bins while he was collecting them). But I suspect people throw their stuff in the trash — which gets burned for electricity and heat (that’s another post altogether). The recycling agencies have put out ads lately begging people to recycle instead as they are running out of material.

They might be grateful to have the Roma around. They take bags of cans and plastic bottles to the recycling machines in grocery stores, 1 kr per bottle return. After groups of two and three people carrying huge bags of recycling started coming into the stores to get the return deposit, stores started putting out signs that they would only pay out to 50 kr.

But really, the bulk of the money they gather must come simply from sitting at the entrances to these stores. I’ve gotten to the point that I no longer want to go to our local corner shop because I see the young woman sitting there on her pallet — the same young woman, every day this summer and into the fall, 8 to 8 pm, with Sundays off; she works longer hours than I do! — and I feel guilty that I am not going to give her any change, or any food.

Evening, Stockholm.

Evening, Stockholm.

The Roma here seem to have pallets of blankets, stashed all over town, and they sit in front of grocery stores, subway entrances, kiosks — anywhere someone might have some spare change. I feel less guilty if it’s a “strange” Roma woman (it’s usually a woman) at the entrance to the grocery, and even so, if they are young enough, I want to talk to them and tell them to go to school.  It’s amazingly frustrating to me. I cannot face them. They plead with me with this whining “please” or drawn-out “hej” that makes my skin crawl and I feel alternately guilty and annoyed.

With my huge bag of beer cans on a Sunday afternoon, I was a walking target. A Roma man with a dirty face, hat askew and a bulky long wool coat that was too big for his tiny body, accosted me on the sidewalk. I have no idea what he was shouting at me, but it sounded something like “Give me! Give me! Give me!” I was so alarmed, I immediately got angry and said “no!” and walked away as fast as I could.

I fumed on my way to the mall. Why did he have to shout at me? Why should I give this rude person my cash? How could he feel so deserving? Why should I reward this behavior?

And then my adrenaline rush waned, and I stopped and thought: he must feel so desperate. And I am so lucky. I don’t need this bag of coins. I don’t have to do the work of slipping each can into a machine. I should have just handed him the bag.

I turned around and walked down the sidewalk in the direction I had come, searching for the odd figure. He had disappeared. I got angry again — how could he simply vanish? Would I feel guilty if I didn’t find him, and took the cans myself?

I could have continued to the mall to hand the bag to the plump young woman who sits at the northern entrance under the plane trees near the bike racks and a new cafe. I could have turned around and handed the bag to the young woman who sits in front of our local shop. I’m sure I could have found someone at the T-bana entrance in Tessinparken.

I thought for a moment and turned toward the 7-Eleven. Of course he was sitting in front of the store, the shouting, dirty, homeless Roma man. I walked up to him and handed him the bag, and the expression on his face first registered surprise — he grabbed the sack. And then he motioned to me — he was asking for change.

I got angry and shouted at him, No! And walked away swearing under my breath. Why couldn’t he have said thank you and been grateful?

But why do I expect that? How hard to be subservient always, to scrape and plead, give me give me give me. The psychology of altruism is not easy. (There’s a huge and sometimes controversial body of scientific literature on the subject.) Somehow, it takes empathy, the ability to understand and sympathize with someone enough to give. Or perhaps it is selfishness, and the flood of good feeling in helping that makes humans altruistic. Giving all the time is taxing, and humans expect to get something in return, or to be giving for something specific that gives back to them somehow — some cause they believe in or to some poor yet seemingly deserving individual that makes the giver feel self-righteous.

I still don’t know what to do when I see Roma people. Nor do most Swedes. In the newspaper Dagens Nyheter this week, two news stories reported that about 60% of Stockholmers do not support a ban on begging, and 45% of them give change to beggars — tiggare is the word for beggar, and I think most people use it for Roma here.

I have a hard time coming to any conclusions. A few more thoughts, and then I’ll leave this topic for a bit:  it’s getting cold and soon it will be dark here in Sweden. If I were a Roma person sitting here on the streets, away from home and family, I’d be thinking of making tracks back to more familiar territory — unless it is so awful at home that it’s not tenable. That may be the case for many Roma, and the discrimination defines the Roma experience, no matter where they are but especially in the communities in Romania from where many of the folks here in Sweden seem to hail. But why not become part of the system here? Why not put down roots and give back to the society here? I know it’s not part of their culture, but why not seek a better, warmer, friendlier existence?  If they work as hard as I do, why not benefit from that work?

And my last guilty thought: the slow steady trickle of Roma into Sweden and the rest of the EU has been overshadowed by the people in extremis arriving from Syria and elsewhere, hoping for asylum or a short-term interlude of safety and calm. Their situations are incomparable, so then why do I compare them? The people who have paid money to escape war and other desperate situations might have good educations, work experience, the willingness to fit in eventually to a new society — or not, but who might make the most of a short sojourn before returning home — are the Roma not doing the same? Who is more deserving of assistance? And who am I to judge?

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