Cynicism, in ancient Greece, was a philosophy that valued Virtue above all else. It preached the necessity of living in accordance with Nature and the adoption of an ascetic lifestyle, shunning material desires like wealth, power or fame. The term “Cynic” derives from an Ancient Greek word meaning “dog-like”, referring to the Cynic’s propensity for living on the streets, preaching to passersby and begging them for money.
In modern times, of course, cynicism is synonymous with jadedness; the cynic views the world primarily through a negative, skeptical lens, generally disbelieving the sincerity or goodness in human actions. It is a neat historical – or perhaps better to say linguistic – irony that few things have contributed more to the average New Yorker’s cynicism than the panhandler.
It is a widely held belief throughout the rest of the country that New Yorkers are a rude, impatient, ill-mannered bunch, hyper-aggressive and devoid of a certain charitableness considered endemic to small-town America. Like most clichés, it is a small truth that ignores and acts to obscure an even larger truth, one that takes into account the broader perspective. I can still remember my shock after moving to New York, the first time I visited our neighborhood grocery store. Walking down an aisle so narrow I could grab products off the shelves on both sides simultaneously, I encountered a woman – middle-aged, Spanish, wearing a frowzy overcoat – coming the other way. She was studying the shelf to my left in deep concentration, drifting forward in a sort of daze. I moved off to the right and turned sideways to let her pass, but not noticing me she failed to reciprocate; our shoulders collided and we stumbled a bit as we finally squeezed past one another. “Oh, excuse me, sorry!” I blurted automatically, because that is what one does in the Midwest, even though I had not been the one at fault. The woman, however, said nothing and continued down the aisle as if nothing had happened. My initial bafflement turned to incredulousness, and finally, annoyance. The entitlement she displayed, pushing past me as if I weren’t even there – negating my existence with a single gesture – left me fuming for the rest of the day.
After a few months of living in the city, however, I began to notice a subtle change in my behavior. The single most important thing you need to know to understand New York is this – there are a lot of people and very little space. About 8.5 million people, roughly, living on only 305 square miles of land. Being pushed together in this way, forced to live on top of one another, accounts for many of the quirks New Yorkers display. With such a premium put on space, businesses here tend to shrink. The next time you visit your local, suburban Target, imagine cutting the room directly down the middle and discarding one half. Now imagine moving all the shoppers into the remaining half and tripling their numbers, and you have a pretty good idea what shopping in a New York Target store is like. The same holds true for all other businesses – much less space, many more people. Meaning a lot of jostling, bumping and colliding. After a few months of constant apologizing and politely deferring to others it occurred to me that I would never get anything done if I didn’t start accepting the fact that some contact with others was a necessary evil. And so, I stopped saying “excuse me”. It wasn’t that I had grown ruder, just that I had entered into an implicit contract with my fellow New Yorkers – there is no room to move, we are going to bump into each other, neither of us is at fault, and so there is nothing to forgive. It becomes just another inevitable part of living in the city, neither good nor bad, but simply a fact of life.
The same phenomenon is at work with panhandlers. There are simply too many in too confined a space for the average New Yorker not to be in constant contact with them. And so they fade into the background, just another feature of the cityscape to be navigated, like bike messengers or taxis or the giant puddles on every street corner after a hard rain. One of the quickest ways to discern whether a person is a tourist or a local New Yorker is whether or not they stop to engage with a panhandler, and especially if they give the panhandler money. Similar to the unspoken agreement about jostling one another, New Yorkers seem to have an agreement with panhandlers whereby the latter are free to make their pitch and the former are free to ignore it, allowing the latter to make their living off the aforementioned tourists or the occasional local impressed enough or loaded down with enough change that they feel compelled to part with a coin or two. Unlike the stories I’ve heard from other cities, like San Francisco, where beggars are aggressive and can often become threatening, panhandlers in New York typically take being snubbed in stride – fortunate, because New Yorkers tend to disavow the very presence of a panhandler when being solicited. A man in a tattered coat huddled on the corner, cup in hand, who calls out, “Excuse me, sir,” to a passing New Yorker is about as likely to receive an acknowledgment as a lamppost or garbage bin. This has led to the perception in other parts of the country that New Yorkers are particularly unfeeling or self-centered. Again, there are some grains of truth in this, but the complete picture is more complicated. New Yorkers are cynical towards panhandlers because over the years their suspicions have been borne out; they have become inured to apparent suffering because so much of that suffering has been revealed to be a ruse.
There’s a gradual process to burning out. I’ve seen the change in myself. In the beginning, you try to give to everyone – a few coins, maybe a dollar. Better to give in case the person really needs it than to refuse just because you’re unsure. Soon, though, it becomes too much. You commute to work and back each day. Every city block, every subway car, every train platform, there’s another person asking for help. Even if it was only a few cents, you couldn’t possibly give to everyone. So you start making decisions, give to this person, but not this one. Sometimes there’s a reason for your choice – this person has two small kids, and you have a soft spot for children; this person plays the violin beautifully and you want to reward her talent. Sometimes it’s completely arbitrary, a spur of the moment decision to either dig into your pocket or keep your nose buried in the book you’re reading. Then the stories start coming out; you hear them from a friend or on the local news. The kids selling candy for their basketball team are actually buying designer clothes. The beardy college students shilling for a children’s charity actually work for a third-party agency keeping up to ninety percent of all donations. Even the homeless Vietnam vet on Times Square turns out to be just some guy with a bad knee who bought a few medals at a flea market and is now pulling in six figures a year playing on people’s patriotism. Before you know it, you’ve given up. You shut down and limit your caring to those closest to you, your friends and family.
New York is built on grift. From Wall Street bankers scamming pension funds into investing in built-to-fail mortgage backed securities, to the NYPD fixing tickets for friends and relatives; from phony landlords holding open houses on apartments to collect application fees, to bodegas acting as fronts for everything from immigrant smuggling to drug selling operations, everyone is in on the action. All any of us regular folks can do is keep our heads down, our mouths shut, and our money firmly in our wallets. Better to turn a blind eye to suffering than become another victim. Suspect everyone and assume the worst – a Cynic’s motto if ever there was one.
Photo Source: Common Bond Association