Talking on the street in Dublin

The Irish government presented its emergency budget for 2009 on Wednesday, and I’d picked up a newspaper to learn about it, after finishing some frivolous shopping. I was sitting outside a cafe, with coffee, reading that the changes would be hard on lower income residents of Ireland.

A women approached me to beg for spare change. I’d seen her around the area quite a bit. She didn’t recognise me, but that was no surprise.

I thought I had a few coins in my pocket. Generally, I give spare charge to people on the streets. I reached into my pocket to find that I’d left my change as a tip at the cafe.

After I said, “I honestly don’t have any change. I thought I did,” she sat down and gave her spiel. I insisted that I had no change to give her. Finally, I said, “Come back in 10 minutes. I will have change then.”

I bought a second coffee and had change to give when she returned, less than 10 minutes later. (The few times I’ve made such a proposal, the person didn’t return, and I respect that. Beggars’ time is valuable too.)

She accepted the money and immediately began to explain that she needed more for her bills at the hostel and for her four babies. We talked for a little while, mostly her explaining why she needed 20 euros today. Her explanations fit well with the accounts I’ve read of asylum-seekers and refugees living in Dublin. (I read avidly on that topic, partly due to professional interest.)

Eventually, our conversation devolved into me repeating, “No, I cannot give you more today. I kept my promise, and I cannot give more.”

She left, disappointed but with good will. I wonder whether she will approach me when she sees me again.

-

I am committed to treating strangers as individual people, talking with them when they want, and speaking as honestly as possible. I prepare to meet that commitment by making myself secure — I keep my valuables beside me, I know the signs of some street scams, and I do not fear that giving my attention to someone will leave me vulnerable.

An aside: As far as honesty is concerned, passing someone on the streets is a different context than the one from Wednesday. In my opinion, it’s okay to say, “Sorry” or “I don’t have any,” to keep moving as a pedestrian, but also acknowledge someone’s presence. If I were working on an article at the cafe table, I would have adopted a more dismissive attitude. I’ve noticed that when I am absorbed in my work, beggars rarely interrupt me. I take that as (possibly) a sign of respect.

Another aside: I know that my open stance sometimes encourages an activity known as “aggressive begging.” I acknowledge that my commitment may be counter-productive, since aggressive begging tends to give a mandate to intolerant policies towards people on the street. Indeed, I admit that after an interaction like Wednesday’s, I feel a little bit of resentment towards other beggars; I want to respond, “Look, I just spent ten minutes with someone like you. I’m not just another callous passer-by.”

Now I’ll get back to the point, however flimsy it is. When the woman said, “You have nice things, you can buy two coffees,” she is correct.

When I said, “I cannot give more, to you, today,” I was also correct. (By “I cannot,” I meant, as most people do, “I ought not,” as a practical matter and as an ethical conclusion.)

I rarely try to resolve the conflict between these points of view. To be honest, I’m conserving emotional energy, since the conversations themselves are so draining. The talking itself is difficult, from the language barriers to the mismatch between her urgency and my (leisurely) devotion to saying things right.

Add to that my reasonable, background fear of being a “mark” (as it’s said in Midwestern American), that her words are just a sales pitch — and these conversations are almost not viable at all. We talked, we even touched, but the separation between us seems to keep me from knowing whether my own words and actions are right, let alone hers.

I’m not sure why I’m offering this to you, in such a public way. Maybe I recently formed a new opinion — that keeping it to myself isn’t working.

2 Comments to “Talking on the street in Dublin”

  1. Rachel Hester said...
    21 April 2009

    It is very frustrating when you try to help someone and then they try to make you feel bad for the things you have “earned”, by trying to place a guilt-trip on you. It only makes you regret helping them and turns you off from giving. They ruin it for the legitimate people who need help. And also with her “telling” you how much you should give her, I guess beggers can be choosers.

    Rachel from Iowa

  2. boogysplit said...
    21 April 2009

    Will,

    From my experiences in Oregon and Washington, mainly the Portland-Seattle areas. There are many areas where people congregate to (what we call) spange. and its all over the place…thing is, you cant get down on yourself for not responding every time someone starts begging. Sometimes it just comes at you so constantly it gets a little tiresome. And some groups of these people will want a mile after you give em an inch. that in itself can prove to be a mistake. and Ive wondered myself if I was being selfish or just someone who doesnt care..so what my oldest son and I do on occassion is, grab a couple of boxes make a bunch of sandwiches and buy a case of bottled water, pack it all up and head out to a good location and hand em out, that way you know you are helping, and you dont have to worry if the money you just handed out is going to be put to good use. also something you may want to consider…its been proven, although not a fact for all…but many people who spange, can make over $20 an hour! do that 7 days a week, man you can make a killing! remember that the next time you feel you arent being sympathetic enough.