There is a panhandler who wanders the subways of midtown – I call him the Bitter Giant. He’s at least six feet and six inches tall, easily three hundred pounds, darkly and thickly bearded – he might be Sephardic, or Persian, or Greek. Regardless, he is the rare New York panhandler who has not learned to use empathy or hope to his advantage.
He dresses in billowing sweatpants and nondescript t-shirts, usually with some sort of head covering, though few meet his gaze squarely enough to mark that detail. His most remembered features, therefore, are his feet. They are wrapped haphazardly in towels and rags, some bound around his lower legs with duct tape. The bits of his feet that peek out from this rough covering are nearly black with the grime of the city, or perhaps with some disease, and visibly swollen. He walks, lurching but forceful, with a black cane – metal, rubber-tipped, institutional.
And he asks for money for shoes. I’ve seen him several times, over many months, always barefoot, always asking for money for shoes. This is unsurprising for two conflicting reasons.
First, most of the city’s panhandlers have an established patter that has only a tenuous connection to their actual need. There is no shame or deception in this – it’s a convenience for both the beggars, and their potential benefactors. Few of us really care whether our money is going to a hotel room for the night or a school uniform or medicine. These are merely substrates for the evaluation of the character of the appellant.
And that is the second reason this giant panhandler’s consistent need for shoes is no surprise – he is so palpably unpleasant, without being obviously psychotic, that it seems entirely plausible that he has not succeeded, over many months, in raising the seven dollars that he says he needs for a pair of sandals.
His pitch begins plainly enough, on any given subway car full of people staring at their phones. “I’m out here on the street, folks, and it’s hard. I don’t have any shoes, you can see that, and I need your help. Just a cheap pair of sandals, seven bucks, it’d help so much.”
Now, there is always a hesitation after one of these subway pitches – not just an individual reticence, but a kind of silent deliberation among everyone aboard. Through glances, through turned shoulders, through hands that begin to reach for wallets, or do not, the jury, set a collective level of empathy, a degree of care.
New Yorkers, though confronted with these appeals on a daily, even hourly basis, are not hard-hearted. I have seen an entire car, down to the last single person, turn out their wallets for a middle-aged man who mildly informed us all of his struggles as a homeless diabetic. These stories need time to sink through the armor of the city dweller – but often, they do.
But the Bitter Giant, into this crucial silent moment, consistently thrusts the poisonous shard of his bottomless resentment.
“No?” he will nearly shout, sometimes just moments after finishing his appeal, before anyone has the chance to weigh it. “Nobody can take one second to help me? You people can’t spare a dollar?”
And then he will begin lumbering from one end of the train car to another, and there is a sense that this is the real pitch, the real purpose – not an appeal, but a judgment.
“Well, that’s just typical. Are you even listening to me right now? Am I even alive? Or am I nothing but a walking piece of shit to you?”
The few hands that may have been tentatively straying towards pockets retreat hastily. Gazes remain firmly fixed on iPhones. I have never seen anyone give this man even a single dollar.
Eventually, he will run out of steam, or we will arrive at the next station. He will mumble venomously – “Well, that’s just great . . .” as he steps off the train, moving onward to repeat it all again.
And I’m left to wonder. Are his filthy, rag-covered feet a prop? New York isn’t Delhi, where pitiful children display missing limbs, and the Bitter Giant’s sign of dereliction is the most dramatic I’ve seen. But if it is some kind of choice, intended to garner pity, it is a profoundly poor one. The man’s size alone makes him threatening, makes the idea of reaching out to him in any way seem like an invitation to violence. The addition of disease to the factors being weighed in the minds of New Yorkers, those constant mathematicians of risk and boundary, is doing him no favors.
Of course, this is a heinous line of thought – to impose upon the least of us the standards of the boardroom, the reality TV contestant, the door-to-door salesman. But there’s no denying that some of the disadvantaged have themselves mastered this logic better than others.
More than his size or his rotting feet, though, it is his grievance that makes the Bitter Giant intolerable. Rather than giving those he appeals to the chance to be a solution to his problem – a savior, which isn’t that what we all want to be? – his interest is in labelling those who fail to help him as the cause of all his woe.
Each hesitation is just one more bit of proof that the world is against him, that the city he wanders is a nightmare, full of heartless automata who see him as a hideous and inhuman monster. This idea, born in his own head, he brings to fruition through his words, his glare, his menace – proving once again that magic is real.
So along with our self-interested fear and revulsion, I think, there is another reason no one gives this man money to buy sandals. Any straphanger who did would not be doing him a service, but breaking his spell, and taking away the only power he believes he has – the power to make himself a monster.