Guilt Money, a Quarter at a Time

For many weeks, walking home from work each night, I avoided the guy who sat in a wheelchair in front of my bank. He was there every evening, with an outstretched cup and a smile that revealed a gold front tooth. His brown eyes gleamed. A field of stubble covered his jowls. He had skinny arms and skinny legs and dressed in dirty T-shirts and jeans.

I didn’t always walk behind his back. For months, I passed in front of him, rushing by without making eye contact. Trying to seem harried like most New Yorkers, I could feel him looking at me, smiling wide, perhaps sensing my discomfort. He didn’t make it easy to deny him a little change. He wasn’t aggressive or loud, drinking or on drugs. And he never asked for money, never said, “Got a little change, brother?”

One evening, I capitulated. Leaving the bank with a wad of 20’s, I gave him some quarters and met his gaze as I dropped the coins in his cup.

“Thanks, man,” he said.

“No problem,” I replied as if nothing unusual had happened. Yet we both knew that things were now different. I’m sure he realized he’d won me over, that I couldn’t withdraw money from the A.T.M. without giving him a little royalty. At least I would have to nod hello. We’d just signed an unspoken contract. I would become one of his regular clients.

And this is what happened. I would see him a block away, wearing headphones, bobbing his head back and forth to a rhythm that only he heard. Before I reached him, I would fish around in my pockets for some change and give it to him as I passed. Our interaction was limited to his saying, “Thank you,” and me saying, “Any time.” I never asked his name because I wanted him to remain anonymous.

Did I feel better? Did I congratulate myself, thinking I was alleviating a bit of suffering on my little corner? Hardly. In fact, the deeper I examined my gesture, the more it occurred to me that I was giving for the wrong reasons. For it was always a capricious act, dependent on my mood, what had happened to me that day. At times, I felt genuinely magnanimous. Other times, I simply couldn’t be bothered. Most days, I didn’t want to give but did so grudgingly, saying to myself, “It means more to him than you.” It was worse to pass him and see him smile without returning the good will.

During the following months, I must have dropped $50 in his cup. I didn’t care what the money bought. It certainly didn’t impact my life style. And for most chronic donors, the gesture would have been enough. But all along I felt selfish. I was miserable that I didn’t give more. And it sickened me that I thought of myself throughout the transaction. It was the Catch-22 of the streets. I felt less like an ass if I gave. And more like one if I didn’t. Either way, it was manipulation.

Of course, the truth was that guilt-stained dopes like myself enable the destitute to survive. Take my guy. Like so many others, he hovered near the same bank, the same time each day. Only the truly heartless could ignore him, and then only for so long. He knew we’d break down if we lived in the neighborhood, which is why he never moved from his spot.

So many places in the city are staked out this way. The gravelly-voiced Jamaican man who plays an out-of-tune guitar each morning on the uptown F line at 14th Street; the white couple roaming the subways, their belongings in tow, telling a story about AIDS. All are fixtures of my landscape. All of them have their own stories to tell.

So this is how I rationalized it. By giving to “my wheelchair guy,” as I’d come to call him, I was purchasing a reduction in guilt that I didn’t give to others. And this is what eventually drove me to stop giving. The politics of it all galled me. Both of us knew we were engaged in a little charade. And, after a while, I wanted out.

Having decided to avoid him, my evening routine got weird. Emerging from the subway, I would peer down the block to see if he was there. If I spotted him, I would then cross the street, walk uptown a few blocks. then backtrack home. Occasionally, I’d stop in a liquor store or deli, kill a few minutes without buying anything, then emerge; if he saw me cross First Avenue, he wouldn’t think I avoided him on purpose. Shamefully, I admit, I skulked behind his back on several occasions. I stopped using my regular A.T.M. and nearly switched banks.

Did he know I was playing this game? Probably not. I suspect he remained oblivious to my subterfuge. Or he couldn’t have cared less. One night, though, the absurdity of it struck me. I was annoyed that I couldn’t take a direct path home. My guilt and self-loathing hadn’t dissipated. And, if anything, I’d become angry. Angry at myself, at him, at the city for putting us in this impossible situation. I wanted to shout ” J’accuse ” at someone for turning my charitable impulses into a neurotic mess. Six years in New York hadn’t beaten me down. Now, in a twisted way, the guy in the wheelchair had turned me into a person I despised.

One night, I decided to find out why he was so hard up. I walked up cheerfully, gave him some change, gestured to his wheelchair and said, “What happened, man?”

“I got hit by a car,” he answered. “I got paralyzed from the waist down. They told me I’d never walk again. I lost my job as a janitor. I get disability checks now, but that barely covers my rent. I don’t have enough for food or clothes. So I come out here and hope that guys like you can spare a little.”

That sounded perfectly awful to me. I didn’t think he was lying. And, once again, I felt like a selfish fool. Embarrassed, I asked if he could find training for another job. He said he was working on it, trying to get some computer skills. A charitable organization in the city was helping him. “If you hear of anything, let me know,” he said.

“Sure,” I replied and went home to my very different world.

After that conversation, my conscience re-emerged healthy. I doled out the change with genuine good cheer. And though I occasionally still felt like a stooge, I warmed to the idea, once again, that I was making a token difference in someone’s life.

When winter arrived, he abandoned his spot. For three months now, I haven’t seen him, and no one has replaced him in front of the bank. I wonder if he’ll come back in the spring. I still pass by every evening. I hope he’s warm and has enough food. I should have helped him more, I think, and I hope to see him again if under better circumstances.

I can’t explain it, but I miss him.

Guilt Money, a Quarter at a Time