Was George the Beggar still around? I went to look for him the other day, walking up from Madison Square along 5th Ave. His stamping ground when last I saw him, back before the pandemic hit, was the street corner opposite the Empire State Building—the southeast corner of 34th and 5th. In calling it his stamping ground, I mean exactly that. All day long, over and over, he tramped 10 feet in one direction, then 10 feet back in the other direction, aided by a wooden cane with a white rubber tip. His movements were timed to the crossing signals. As part of his corner filled with pedestrians waiting in a body to cross with the light, he shuffled out in front of these captives and turned to face them, his feet in the gutter. He then proceeded, in his quiet way, to pick them off one by one.
“Good afternoon. Can you spare anything for lunch?”
The startled eyes of the captured one beheld an old beggar man standing there slouched in the gutter looking up with his hand out. An old white beggar man with shaggy white eyebrows and long white curls sticking out the sides of his cap. A lumpy plastic bag with handles dangled from his sunburnt wrist.
George met with far more failure than success. The startled eyes looked away or down at a cell phone, and George, without a further word, moved on to the next person. Time was short in George’s game, and he couldn’t afford to waste it in chatter. Fifty seconds was all he had with any given group of captives before they fled with the changing of the light. The clock was then reset, as it were. Deserted by the fleeing mob, he shuffled over to the neighboring crosswalk and turned to face the newly-forming group of captives there. Here, too, the red light was clocked for 50 seconds, and George began the same dreary round all over, his pitch never varying from person to person.
And so it went the whole day long, this constant scuttling back and forth. In a city teeming with thousands of beggars, none of them worked exactly like George; or none at least that I’d ever seen. In its soul-killing monotony it seemed a form of torture to me, and this was even prior to my learning from George himself that he worked his little corner plot seven days a week. How could any human being possibly stand it? But even worse to contemplate was the thought of all that rejection he suffered—that steady diet of averted eyes in answer to his plea.
All beggars everywhere suffer rejection, but most learn to ward it off by means of disengagement—by sitting or standing off to the side, with a sign to do their talking for them. Not so George. He neither sat nor stood in place; nor did he hold a hand-lettered sign. Instead he went right up to his quarry, looked them in the eye, and croaked out his line.
I first saw George on a sweltering Monday in late-July, with the sun at its zenith. I was walking south along 5th Ave. and was about to cross it at 34th St. when he caught me in his toils on the southeast corner.
“Good afternoon. Can you spare anything for lunch?”
I averted my eyes, and that was enough. He lingered a moment but made no challenge. The walk sign flashed, and I started across.
But once I got to the other side, I stopped and looked back at him. I stood there watching him for the next 20 minutes, at once both fascinated and utterly appalled.
My fascination finally won out. While George was shuffling into place to catch the next wave of pedestrians, I re-crossed the avenue and asked him straight out if he’d be willing to grant me an interview. Hoping to engage him for about 30 minutes, I dangled the promise of remuneration. To this he responded with a shrug of his shoulders, as if to say, “I’m not opposed.” But first he had a question of his own.
“Can you buy me lunch? I’m really hungry.” His mouth showed only one tooth as he spoke.
He knew a nearby food emporium, and a few minutes later I stood looking on while he ordered a turkey hero to go. Leaving no doubt as to who was to pay for it, he handed me the completed sandwich, a thick mound smelling of pickle and wrapped in white butcher paper. Also given to me to hold were two bottles of apple juice and one carefully picked-out unspotted banana. The cashier lady, seeing all this—and seeming to read the situation—honored me with a kindly smile as I paid for George’s things. Or was her smile tinged with derision for another caught fish? I had the feeling this had happened many times before in here, George being staked to a meal by a do-gooder.
All four items were stuffed in a bag. On handing the items back to him, now that they were paid for—for which I received his raspy thanks—I asked if he wanted to eat upstairs. (While looking around, I’d noticed an upper level arranged with tables and chairs.)
But George had a different place in mind, one I certainly didn’t see coming.
“Let’s go to the bank”—and he made for the door.
I followed him back to his stamping ground. There on the southeast corner was a Chase, its name in white letters over the entrance. I followed him into the high-ceilinged lobby, where off to one side were four black armchairs, two facing two across a low coffee table. George plopped down in one of the armchairs, while I took the one directly opposite.
“Are you sure we’re okay here?” I couldn’t help asking when the turkey hero made its appearance, gobs of mayo oozing from its sides.
“They know me here,” George replied with an unconcerned air. After a pause, he added flatly, “This is my bank. I’m a customer here.”
I couldn’t disguise my astonishment. “Then why do you ask for money on the street?”
George turned up the palms of his hands. “It’s very expensive to live in this city. You know what’s it like. What can I tell you?”
I let him get on with his lunch undisturbed. When he’d had his fill, he made a show of consulting his wristwatch, like a man pressed for time.
“So what do you want to know?” he asked, eyeing me with a shrug of the shoulders and looking down at his watch again.
How well-ordered society is! “So you’re a writer?” George had asked when I first approached him with a request for an interview. Yes, I told him, I’m a writer—and now, despite our having been acquainted for barely 30 minutes, I was permitted, by dint of this title, to pry into his private life. Of course it helped that I’d dangled the promise of remuneration in exchange for his story. For the next half hour, with occasional prodding, he gave me the following account of himself.
“I used to work in this neighborhood. I worked for a firm that sold business phones. They went out of business, and then I couldn’t find a job. So here am I. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not homeless. That’s why I don’t use a sign. I’m not going to say I’m homeless if I’m not homeless. I live in Williamsburg, in Lindsay Park. You know Lindsay Park? It’s been around for over 50 years. It’s made up of seven buildings, each one 22 stories high. It’s subsidized housing, part of the Mitchell-Lama program. I’ve got a small one bedroom there. I live with my wife, my son, and my brother-in-law Charlie. We’re crowded in. My son, Jason, is 36. He’s schizophrenic, but he’s okay when he’s on his meds. He spends a lot of time on the computer. My wife doesn’t leave the apartment. She has no feeling in her feet. She was in the hospital for three months with some kind of infection in her legs, and she’s still not well. She was a timekeeper for the Board of Education for 33 years. She bosses me around a lot. I bring in all her food. I bring in from McDonald’s, from Dunkin Donuts. The oven hasn’t been used for years. My son has the bedroom. I sleep on the dining room floor. There’s hardly any space. It’s not comfortable. We’ve got roaches and ants. I put down fly paper, but I only got one fly. So I have to buy bug spray.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. My daughter was driving with her boyfriend and her two children, a boy and a girl, and I don’t know what happened, whether it was my daughter or the boyfriend, but one of them lost control of the car and they all died. It was pitiful. What else do you want to know? I’m Jewish; I’m 74. My wife, Iris, is 66. I lived with my parents until I was 38. That’s when I got married. My father was a plumber. I could’ve gotten into that business if I’d wanted to, but I had no interest in plumbing. I was close to my mother, Estelle. I had an older brother, Arthur. He was retarded. What can you do? He died a few years ago.
“Before I got married, I was on the TV show The Dating Game.That was back in the 1960s; I was around 28 at the time. Do you remember that show? The host was Jim Lang. Three bachelors sit behind a screen and answer questions from a lady. She picks one of them to go out with on a date. I didn’t get picked, but that was a lot of fun. I did a few impressions that went over pretty well: Al Jolson, Laurel and Hardy, Dean Martin. Do you want me to do one now? Here’s the Al Jolson—
I’d walk a million miles
For one of your smiles,
At that very moment, as luck would have it, a young black woman was crossing the lobby, just feet away from where we were sitting. I observed her out of the corner of my eye. She visibly started; her head whipped around. And there was George, this sketchy old white man belting out Jolson in the quiet of the bank. I sat very still, my heart in my mouth. And then the moment of torture was over. Her footsteps faded, she passed out of sight, never to know why that snatch of song sprang to the lips of that sketchy old man. But whatever we can’t explain to ourselves, we promptly forget, our mind lets go of; and I imagined the same letting-go of George and his song from the mind of this woman.
George concluded his talk with me by telling me about his begging.
“I’m here seven days a week, starting about a quarter to nine in the morning. I take the M train in from Williamsburg, and the first thing I do is go get breakfast from the Dunkin Donuts on 32nd St. They’re nice to me there, they give me breakfast for free. Then I’m out here working until a quarter to four. It gets dead here after four, so I walk over to the bus stop at 36th and 6th and work the corner there until around seven, eight o’clock. Then I go back to Williamsburg. I make about $80, $100 a day. The best times are between eight and 11 in the morning. That’s when people give the money. After that it’s potluck. I never sit and ask for money. You can’t make any money sitting. You get a lot of foreigners here who don’t understand English, so one thing I’ve started doing lately is show a dollar bill to people when asking them for money. It don’t help that often.
“I’ve got some regulars. One of them, an Oriental woman, went to Macy’s and bought me all these clothes I’m wearing—the shirt, the pants, these canvas shoes. She spent $125 on me. I haven’t done so well today. Maybe I’m too dressed up. I don’t know. Most Chinese people I don’t talk to. They give to their own kind. Young people, too, I don’t bother with. Same with black people, unless they’re dressed decent. The biggest amount I ever got? Once at Christmastime, some guy from an organization gave me an envelope. Inside was $850. Eight $100 bills and a 50. He didn’t say anything. He gave me the envelope and walked away.
“I never leave anything on the ground when I’m working. I had this nice water bottle once. I put it on the ground, and next thing I knew it was gone. So now I just have a plastic Poland Spring bottle. I fill it up here”—he pointed behind him to a blue-domed cooler. “The water’s cold, but when you’re working in the hot sun it gets warm pretty fast.”
Nestled against the side of the cooler was a two-foot-high wastepaper basket filled to the brim with used paper cups. My last sight of George that day was seeing him pour out the warmed-over dregs of his water bottle onto this heap of dirty cups. Glug glug glug went the upended bottle. Seeing the glut of Dixie cups begin to rise with the rising tide, I thought of the poor night janitor whose job was to empty this wastepaper basket with its sloshing load. Did he or she know the person responsible for flooding the liner, and why?
The following week I made a special trip to George’s work location and presented him with a brand-new Thinksport water bottle of stainless steel, in “natural” silver. I own the same bottle, which I’m never without. With a cube or two of ice thrown in, it keeps cold water cold for hours, even when left to broil in the sun. Recalling what happened to his last good bottle, I took the liberty of cautioning George never to take his eyes off this new one.
A few weeks later, with no time to spare, but finding myself near George’s corner, I spied his shuffling figure from afar and caught the silvery gleam of an object cradled against his chest with his arm. The Thinksport water bottle! It thrilled me to see this gift of mine on display at this busy corner. Of all the hundreds of people about, only two of us knew its story—how he acquired it and where he filled it. And there it was, shimmering in the sunlight, part of the city’s mise-en-scéne.
Later that day, my errands done, I was strolling down Broadway in the heart of the Village when I happened upon Rafiqi’s food truck installed at the corner of Broadway and 8th. The kerchief-headed Rafiqi himself presided over the sizzling griddle, poking bits of meat with a prong. What got my attention was a guy on the sidewalk shouting up through the window at Rafiqi, “Hey, you got my respect, man. You’re out here hustling—you’re not looking for a handout.”
I found myself, as I walked on by, taking umbrage at these shallow words in light of what I knew about George. Yes, he might be looking for a handout, but if there was a more determined hustler in the entire city, I wasn’t aware of it. With all due respect to the Rafiqis of the world, George in his way was 20 times the hustler any food vendor was.
I let a year pass without visiting George’s corner, and now as I marched up a nearly deserted 5th Ave. and came within sight of my destination, I saw no sign of his shuffling figure. That tourist magnet, the Empire State Building, is closed during the pandemic, and one of the businesses to collapse as a result was that of the enterprising George. Or so I surmised at his noticeable absence.
His bank, however, is still operational. I walked inside and spoke to the young female greeter whom I’d seen a year earlier when I sat with George in the lobby. Everything else in the neighborhood may have changed, but she was still at her post at the foot of the escalator leading up to the second-floor tellers. To all who entered, she offered a sucker from a silver tray spread out in front of her. It was she who gave me news of George, even if the news was six months old.
“He stopped coming back in March,” she told me with a solemn air. On seeing my disappointment, she offered me a sucker.
Describing George to her had been a somewhat tricky matter when I first came up to her. “You have a customer here, an elderly man named George,” I began. Seeing no light of recognition in her eyes, I pressed on. “He sometimes has lunch here in the lobby.” Still nothing.
I’d been hoping to avoid the most obvious thing about George, who after all was a Chase Bank customer in good standing, but now I could see there was no help for it. Girding myself, I got it out.
“He used to beg on the corner here.”
And then the light appeared in her eyes.