Jul 29, 2010, 05:52AM

A Quarter For Your Thoughts

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Tim Wassmo

I was sitting alone in the McDonald’s on Broadway and 4th St., staring at a life-size plastic sculpture of Ronald McDonald and digesting a Big Mac. I was 19, a freshman in college, medicating a hangover, and thinking as usual about some guy I hadn’t heard from.

“Do you have a quarter?” a young man asked.

I opened my purse, mumbled an apology for delaying him, and dropped it in his hand.  

Five minutes later, climbing up Broadway, my thoughts swarming like bees—Why hasn’t he called? Maybe he’s sick. Or he got into a car accident!—a voice came from behind. “Excuse me, do you have a quarter?” I turned to see the same guy from McDonald’s, giving me the same earnest look. Then he recognized me. “Oh! Sorry,” he said and hurried away. I sped up to catch him, and tapped him on the shoulder, “Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me, but do you have a quarter?”

“No,” he laughed, and took off across the street.

On E. 5th St. a year later: “Got a quarter?” “You've done this to me before.” “Sorry,” he shrugged and walking off immediately began peppering his quarter requests elsewhere. And then a year after that, I was having a cigarette outside a bar when he walked by some friends and me, offering us his standard address. “No!” we said angrily, in accidental unison. He disappeared once again.

Following a quick exchange of anecdotes we discovered that the quarter guy—never the nickel, nor 75 cents—had been pulling this routine for years, disappearing and then re-appearing with the same old request which was, somewhat hearteningly, invulnerable to inflation.

And more recently, eight or nine years after I first came across him in McDonald’s, bored at a party—what is there to talk about if you’re not actively trying to get someone to sleep with you?—I began asking what, if anything, anyone knew about him. Nearly all those who had lived downtown during the last decade had had at least one run-in with him. Even more curious was that everyone I spoke to who claimed never to give money to panhandlers, had, for some reason, given money to him.
“Oh my god, the quarter guy is my most hated man in New York,” Stacy said, dispassionately. Stacy’s always dispassionate. It’s her method for avoiding wrinkles. “If I just don’t feel anything, I won’t ever need Botox,” she told me stone-faced last week.

“He came up to me on St. Marks,” Matt explained puffing on a joint, “I gave it to him thinking he needed to use the phone or something. Then it happened again a week later.”

“He doesn't appear to have a drug problem, at least no more than any of my friends,” Andrea said, flashing Matt a look and holding her hand up to reject the joint he was handing her. “He seems clean, relatively well-fed, not particularly sickly, and so strikes you as a peer caught short of subway fare.”

“Also, if it’s only a quarter why can't you spare one?” Caroline added. “I think that’s the magic of his approach.”

I looked at my fork and thought about poking my eyes out. What a shitty party. I checked my phone again for a missed call. Why hasn’t he called yet? Maybe my phone is broken… “Can someone try calling me? I think my phone might be broken.”

It rang and I turned it off. I thought more about the quarter guy.

The quarter guy has hit upon a peculiar niche in Manhattan panhandling. Most beggars are bedraggled in some way, and living in the city you learn to disregard the many desperate requests singing out to you from every street corner. Being too obviously homeless or maimed actually works against you if you mean to beg and do well at it. Preying on sympathy is a tight market here, for Manhattan, famously, is home to the best and brightest in every field. To make a living at panhandling you need to be pretty damn sad to rise above—below—the competition, or else take another route all together.

Dressed smartly in his East Village uniform of vintage t-shirt, jeans, and bed-head, essentially an imitation of homelessness, he looks like a regular guy, not a career panhandler, though of course he is. Which is what bugs people. Like a guy who acts all nuts for you, and then all nuts for the girl standing next to you, or else just disappears as if you made the whole thing up in your head; it’s your pride that’s wounded.

“I kind of hate him,” Caroline said, straining to be heard over the music, over a CD that was beginning to sound more and more like noise. It was a small dinner party, the kind to which I’m often invited these days because my friends feel we’ve gotten too old for drinking parties, yet still too young to give up on partying all together. Trying to act our age, we now get drunk while sitting down. Searching for my glass, I wondered how old we need to get before we can finally turn the volume on the music down and the lights in the room up? I couldn’t see a thing!


Andrea had forked Matt’s hand accidentally. “That’s what you get for putting your fingers in someone else’s plate!” she said. Matt sulked in his chair. She shook her head and gave me a look as if to say, “You see what I have to put up with?” Matt and Andrea have been together since college. Matt complains that Andrea’s too controlling and is punishing her by not marrying her. And Andrea’s punishing Matt for not marrying her by not having sex with him. They’ve got their relationship worked out perfectly. Why can’t I meet a nice guy to withhold sex from? Maybe he slipped and fell and had to go to the emergency room.…

Sitting there in a room full of old friends—and by old, I mean not young—I began developing my own theory. Remember in high school, how requests for quarters were daily occurrences. A quarter for milk, a quarter to use the phone, etc. The cafeteria was full of scavengers scrounging for quarters from table to table just as he had in McDonald's that day. And in elementary school, they tagged their requests with a sweet promise. “I'll be your best friend!” they’d say, and because you were lonely—because some people are just born that way—you really considered it. Or anyway, I did, I’m sorry to say. “I could certainly use a best friend…”

Of course, the promise of these friendships never panned out. Your change gone, so were they, until of course, days later, they’d turn up again with the same request, promising to sell you a second time the same friendship you’d already paid for.

The quarter guy is the grade school scavenger evolved, preying on the lonely. There are many of us. You’ll recognize us by the far away look in our eyes; we’re wondering if perhaps he was robbed, hit in the head and lost his memory. If he is lying tragically in an anonymous hospital bed somewhere, with no wallet, no ID, about to start over. Sidewalk Psychics, offering answers for money, like us, too. The quarter guy, all grown up, has dropped the unrealistic “best friend” refrain—we’ve gotten wise to it—but he implores us with the same demeanor. His smile ignites unconscious Freudian longings. We reassume a role from early childhood—this time he’ll invite me over for Nintendo!—and hand it over.

“I like to think of him as this deviant-mastermind-sociopath who remembers every face that passes and gets a kick out of tallying up how many times the same people will fall for his scheme before they catch on,” Alex speculated.

I’ve entertained a similar idea about most of the men who’ve ever stopped calling me. It’s just nicer to think that these men were out to get me, rather than out to get from me or away from me. Nicer to think I was, at least, special. That having sex with me was part of the plot in some decidedly evil enterprise. That it had been given a great deal of tactical consideration. Maybe he’s been kidnapped. Got lost on safari in Africa. Is reading Dickens to a blind Englishman whose holding him captive. Poor guy… Should I report him missing?

“He’s asked me nine or 10 times, maybe more, each time presenting his question as a spontaneous and singular event,” Andrea recalled. “Even Stacy hates him and she’s a social worker. Just look at her!”

Stacy looked unmoved—but young! “I think it's his nonchalance, that makes me so angry.”

“He asks everyone in the exact same way, as if he’d never done it before,” Matt said.

“I just said that,” Andrea snipped. “You don’t listen.”

“I wanted to say it my way.”

“I heard a rumor that he’s a Saudi prince, that he’s in a rock band and begs just for fun,” Alex added.

“I can't imagine how it affects his love life, but then again, maybe he’s like a quarter millionaire by now, with a video game junkie spouse.”

“You think he’s married?” Andrea asked.

“He's probably richer than I am,” Alex said wistfully.

“The last time I saw him was on 9/11 on Park Ave. He was walking north with the rest of the crowd, covered in dust,” said Stacy.

“Maybe he works on Wall Street.” Alex said.

“For a while, I used to see him all the time on my lunch break in midtown” Stacy added. “And then one time I saw him pushing a brand new bike and got so mad,” she said twirling her hair vacantly. Alex took her hand and kissed it.

“I saw him again last week,” I said, refilling my glass. “The years have not been kind.”

I was walking east on 14th St. It had been a year since my last sighting, when I saw him approaching from the opposite direction. I readied myself, determined this time to tell him off good and clever before he could disappear again. But then, as he got closer, I noticed his eyes were all dull and glassy. He was thinner, pale, his short tousled hair drooping. He walked right past me without making any request. He was vaguely mumbling to himself. I turned around. He didn’t ask anyone after me either.  

Walking home later that night, the phone silent in my purse, I arrived at a kind of acceptance—I come here all the time—he’s not in the hospital, Iris, nor is he stranded in the wilds of Africa. He’s not a Russian spy whose mission had been recalled, but just an ordinary guy as insincere as any other, who having gotten what he wanted, wanted nothing more. Didn’t you get what you wanted too? Finished finally with all that, my thoughts turned to my friends, to their relationships and my comparatively happy prospect of dying alone—much better than dying at a dinner party among other already dead couples—and then finally back upon the quarter guy:

Has he finally exhausted the market? Why did he look so sad? Is he eating properly? Has he developed a drug problem? Is he depressed? Are the quarters no longer enough? Could he be lonely, too? Were all his quarters spent on psychics? Did the future not pan out as they had promised? Has he, like me, been doing the same thing for far too long? At night, walking alone down the long silent avenues, jiggling the change in his pocket lightheartedly, does he ever consider what it was exactly that he pawned? Or holding all his riches, all those tokens of good faith, does he in fact feel rich?

Just as I’ve imagined conversations with all the guys that have over the years disappeared—the things I’d finally say, the parts of me I’d take back—I let myself imagine what the quarter guy might say were I to see him, were I to ask him once more, gently this time, for a refund. Knowing it was impossible, would he reach out anyway? Would he—also hoping to get back something he’d lost—drop into my hand a much-dulled coin?

  • The best scam I saw living in NY was a guy who would dress in a suit and hang out at the various path stations. He would claim to have been pickpocketed and needed train fare home. 6 months after seeing him, dateline did a story on him saying that he earned over $200k a year tax free from this. Now that is just plain clever.

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