On my morning walk to work last Wednesday, a strikingly tall older man with wisps of gray hair, wearing trousers and a puffy black jacket that hid his gaunt frame, asked me for two kronor.
The precision of that request startled me more than the suddenness of his query.
I had approached him from behind, walking fast down the sidewalk bathed in sunshine. Perhaps he saw my shadow, or heard my footsteps, and he turned his entire body abruptly and asked me in short, staccato Swedish, “Can you give me two crowns?”
That’s about 20 cents. He said nothing more than that. Such a piteous request, in such straightforward language. I said, “No, I’m sorry” in Swedish and turned the corner to walk on. I looked back to see him perform the same choreographed dance with another woman as she approached.
And I seriously thought about going back to give him two kronor.
I kept going, however, musing on the following:
Did this man fall through the cracks of the socialist network that is so well-established here? Does he need some kind of psychological assistance? Is that where the Swedish system fails? Or is he old, retired, with a small pension and simply in need of a little something to tide him over? Where does he live? Is he from the neighborhood and do people know him and help him regularly?
How does this man — tall, white, old, Swedish — compare to his Roma counterparts, if I can call them that? Most of the Roma beggars I have seen on this same walk are young women, sitting in their piles of brightly colored skirts with head scarves, also piteously begging — but not as strikingly. Is he more successful? Do these folks hone their pitches, trying what works, collecting data to see who gives to which approach? (Obviously, this guy has an interesting strategy — perhaps better than the old woman who swore and screamed at me one afternoon ages ago in San Francisco and demanded $2.)
Who brings in more cash? Is it easier for the native Swede, with his native tongue and semi-kempt appearance, or for the beautiful young Roma girls with their dark skin and eyes? (I personally suspect that the old Roma women bring in the most money — it’s horrible to see a grandmotherly figure perched in front of a grocery store, begging.)
What do they eat where do they sleep how do they clean themselves where do they shit and urinate?
But here’s the question that followed me for the rest of the day: What does it mean to have people begging in a developed country?
Do they want to be doing this?
Do we, the non-beggars, want them to?
Think about San Francisco or Washington, D.C., or Delhi and Bombay. The arguments go something like, oh, these folks, they don’t want help, they don’t want to live inside (for the US) or these people are serving the mendicants’ purpose, to give religious people the opportunity to help others (ancient religions in India started it off, but it became a Buddhist and Catholic tradition, if I am to believe Wikipedia).
Well, bullshit. Perhaps this is my first-world view, but no one needs to have that kind of a shitty job. Yeah, maybe these young girls are already brainwashed that they need to beg as true Roma (which I think is a harmful “Gypsy” stereotype). I would much prefer that they did something more useful and perhaps more fulfilling for themselves. They might as well. What a waste of potential brain power and human life.
I’m open to hearing the cultural arguments — nomadism is a way of life, they don’t want jobs, etc. But I cannot countenance this with the expressions on these women’s faces, or the furtive use of cell phones by the young ones outside the grocery or 7-Eleven stores. I call bullshit. If you see the wealth that surrounds you, why wouldn’t you want to somehow partake?
Maybe these girls are happy. Maybe that old man is doing just fine and has enough for a kanelbullar at the end of each day and that’s all he wanted. Maybe the crazy people living in San Francisco’s downtown neighborhoods don’t really want a place to sleep that’s safe.
I cannot believe that, but our world is filled with all kinds of people. I just went to see a show on Vivian Maier, the surreptitious photographer now recognized after her death as a talented and creative master. She would have hated the attention. First-world problem?
Perhaps my concerns are misguided — I was tempted to call these “first world problems.” They are not. These questions are fundamental to how we treat each other, and how we want to be seen. Now, perhaps, I will stop ranting and go do some research to try to prove myself wrong. This might take a while. While I’m sure I’ll come back to this subject, I hope it will be with some answers… but probably not.