This past December, at age 65—when neither my wife nor I needed the money—I saw my personal worth increase by a hefty sum on the death of my mother. My father, who predeceased her by a year, had left her all his worldly assets, and now a third of this pelf was mine. (The other two-thirds went to my siblings.) I flew out West to attend the funeral. A short time later I was back in New Jersey, having dinner at home with my wife—a home, by the way, long since paid for and loaded up to the gills with improvements—when she asked me the perfectly reasonable question of what I intended to do with the windfall.
I was shy at first to tell her the notion occupying my thoughts since the funeral. We’re not far from New York, and each time I go there I bring a bit of food with me to give to random panhandlers. It might be a piece of fruit—a Clementine, say, bought by the bagful and easily spared. A lesser option, of dubious appeal even to the starving, is the little bag of pretzel sticks served by the airlines and saved by me for my trips to New York. When short on fruit I bring these in, careful not to smash them, but even then, the downtrodden are not so hard up as to hide their disdain for something so jejune. They scoff, they sneer, they shake their head. But pair the pretzels with something else—the Clementine, say—and the former have a better chance of finding a taker.
And then there’s something better than fruit. With thanks from Lou, our financial advisor, a large brown box arrives at our doorstep every year at Christmastime. As soon as it comes, I pull out the basket wrapped in cellophane and tied with a bow. A basket heaped to overflowing with ripe cheeses, dry salami, mixed nuts, jarred preserves, milk chocolate, cured olives, honey mustard, assorted crackers.
From out of this bounty I select a few items that neither Jean nor I are big on—the chocolate-covered cherries, say; the hickory-smoked summer sausage. I put these discards off to the side, but when I point them out to Jean and ask her permission to give them away, she stiffens at first, she slaps her thigh—“Can’t you let me enjoy the basket for just a little while?” she pleads.
I wait till March to ask her again. By then the heap is nearly gone, and there isn’t much she can say. She allows me, grudgingly, to take the leavings—the lemon butter shortbread cookies, the salt-water taffy—and I go with these into the city and make my disbursements.
Generally speaking, I don’t give money, and never more than a dollar or two. But now that I had this bequest from my mother, on top of what we had already, I felt an urge to open my wallet as never before to someone in need. Once, many years ago, while walking in New York, I saw this white guy peel off a 20 and reach down to hand it to a black guy in rags. The former was ambling along with a friend, and suddenly was dangling this bill in his hand, reaching down low with it even as he continued moving. It was done nonchalantly, but so surprised was the intended receiver—who sat with his beggar’s cup protruding from a doorway—that the 20 slipped from between his fingers and fluttered to the ground. The white guy lunged for it, seeing the bill drop, but before he could get to it the black guy was on it, and the white guy resumed his stroll up the street. His grand gesture was slightly marred, but it made such an impression on me that to this day I would know the precise old doorstep on Amsterdam Avenue where I saw the panhandler.
My vision now was to hand out a 20 just like this man I had seen long ago, but feeling leery of Jean and her judgment, I merely shrugged the night she asked me what I intended to do with my windfall.
A few days later, flush with cash, I began my search for a worthy recipient. I thought of the Mark Twain story “The Million Pound Bank Note,” in which two brothers, wealthy eccentrics, scour all London for a suitable tramp on whom to confer the said amount. In the movie version, the chosen tramp is a slightly tattered Gregory Peck, but the two brothers couldn’t have been pickier than I. In present-day New York, as in most other cities, the large professional begging class divides into two groups—the signers and the shakers. The latter, consisting mostly of men, attempt to attract the public’s notice by rattling coins in a cup or can held out in front of them while sitting or standing. Typically, the rattling noise is accompanied by the shaker’s voice crying out a catchphrase repeated over and over. In the other camp are those who hold, or lay out in front of them, a cardboard sign advertising their plight. Typically, the signers don’t say a word, preferring their signs to do all the talking. They appear not to work as hard as the shakers, but to open for business it takes more effort to be a signer than it does a shaker. The shaker needs a cup is all, and a couple of coins to jiggle together; but the signer needs a felt marker and a good piece of cardboard. Then he must figure out what he’s going to say, and write this legibly in big, bold letters.
As a bookish sort, I’m drawn to the signers, and I narrowed my search to this type only. On a stretch of 5th Ave. in the Upper 40s, I stopped for a minute against a building to read this cardboard sign by the curb:
HUMILIATED BEYOND WORDS.
IN NEED OF KINDNESS DURING HARD TIMES.
NO FAMILY. NO GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE.
EVERY PENNY COUNTS. JESUS LOVES YOU.
The thin, 30ish, bearded author, himself a kind of Jesus figure, sat on the ground with his cardboard sign propped against his drawn-up knees. He’d clearly taken pains with his lettering. It was very neat, straight, and tall—and thick, like his black beard, allowing one to read his sign clear across the wide walk. It was this very neatness that decided me against him. I saw in this quality a kind of slickness befitting the tony location he’d chosen, and after copying down his message (without his noticing), I passed him up.
Later on, outside the Union Square Whole Foods, I came across a black woman sitting on the sidewalk with not one but two signs leaning against the building’s facade. This woman clearly had a story to tell. The sign on the left read:
Pregnant Domestic Violence Case
Stomach Cancer, Sciatica,
PAD, Crohn’s Disease,
a cyst on my kidney
need $30-50 room and board
The sign on the right read:
Hola Bonjour No Gov’t Ass.
Happy Tuesday. I am divorcing
a very abusive husband who hits
me every day.
I fight back. Pregnant. Depressed.
2 kids in Bronx 10 & 16!
The writing itself was an anemic scrawl—an amateurism I found in her favor. But hadn’t she laid it on rather thick? Even if every ill was genuine, did it really serve to list them all? I determined not to give her my 20, but I wasn’t so heartless as to desert her entirely. To pass the time, she was reading a book whose title was hidden behind her hands. There was also a book beside her on the ground. For the privilege of learning her taste in these matters, I approached and asked her what she was reading, while holding out to her a couple of dollars. She took the bills with an obliging smile and showed me first the novel in her hands (Skank, it was called, by Charles Jordan), and then the volume lying beside her (no less than the Holy Bible). She acted somewhat dismissive of Skank, describing it to me as a gangster book, and was much keener about the other, holding it up proudly.
By now I’d been traipsing the city for hours, perusing sign after cardboard sign, and still my 20 remained unspent. I felt the stirrings of a familiar kind of despair coming on, the despair of the shopper who hasn’t found the article he craves. In this frame of mind I determined to leave, and while making my way to my hole to New Jersey—the PATH train entrance on W. 14thSt.—I noticed out of the corner of my eye a signer sitting with his back to the wall of the corner Starbucks at 6th and 14th. I call him a signer, but that’s a stretch. Instead of the usual square or rectangle, all he had by way of cardboard was a torn, jagged scrap of a thing on which he had scrawled, “A little help.” Nothing else, just those words—the work of 30 seconds, if that. He hadn’t bothered to shade in the letters with repeated strokes to make them bold. They were pale, twiggy characters, like the man himself. And as phrases go, he couldn’t have hit on one more shopworn. Using his bended knee as a mount, he held his sorry scrap there and stared out vacantly as the masses passed him by.
I, too, passed him by, but then, thinking better of it, stopped and pulled my billfold out, peeling off a 20. The sign was one of the worst I’d seen, but finally it was this that won me over—its unremitting artlessness. I felt such a quality attested to real need.
I approached the seated figure of the signer and extended my hand with the bill sticking out of it, folded in half but clearly a 20, the backside corner numeral showing. This number got the attention of the signer, a hairy fellow with a wooly beard who looked to be in his 30s or 40s.
“Can you use this?” I asked the man, as I do when offering a piece of food. But this was no mere two-ounce bag of complimentary pretzel sticks, which even the starving have been known to scorn. The signer took the proffered bill, then looked up with a grin on his face.
“Man, this makes my day,” he exclaimed, and a light came into his dead blue eyes. This isn’t some writerly touch. I saw it—an actual light in the eyes.
“What’s your name?” I asked the man. I wished to prolong my moment of glory.
“Fred,” he told me, and as soon as he said it, I saw his right arm quiver uncertainly. He wasn’t without his manners, Fred. He had thought a shake of the hands was coming, and was ready with his, which jerked into motion. But seeing nothing from me in return, he aborted the gesture, nipped it in the bud.
But now I thought it only right to follow through on what I had started, and stretching out my hand to him, I told him my name—my first name, Howard.
“That’s an awesome name!” Fred burst out, this time thrusting up his hand without hesitation and gripping mine.
Awesome! Really? No one had ever said that before about this name my parents gave me. Was this what my $20 had bought? But evidently, I shared the name with one of Fred’s favorite characters.
“Have you ever seen Howard the Duck?” he asked enthusiastically.
I knew it to be a science-fiction comedy from the 1980s, but no, I said, I hadn’t seen it.
“Check it out some time,” said Fred. “It’s an amazing movie.”
And that was that, I went on my way, feeling the richer for my act of charity. As I walked along with a spring to my step, I resolved to watch Howard the Duck, thanks to which movie the luckless Fred would always remember me fondly by name. I imagined passing by this way again one day, and hearing my name called in a vaguely familiar twang, I would look over and there would be Fred, sitting sprawled out on the ground as before, a ripped piece of cardboard propped on a knee. And I wouldn’t care that my face called up, to Fred at least, the name of a duck. That would be good for another 20. But whether we met again or not, my name would live among his cronies, who’d all know the story of my kindness to their friend.
These were my thoughts as I waited by the light to cross to my hole on the opposite side. I waited there with other crossers, a group of maybe 10 to 12, which gradually grew by ones and twos until we numbered more than 20. And now, with this small crowd screening me from Fred, I pulled out a wipe, a moist towelette, from the pack I keep in my shoulder bag and thoroughly scrubbed my hand with it—the same right hand given in fellowship only a minute before to Fred. A white lather foamed up and completely covered this hand he had touched.
And now the light turned green, and the crowd started forward. As I began to walk as well, swinging my arms to and fro, the summer air dried the hand and left it with a tacky feeling; but otherwise nothing remained of the foam. At that point, even if Fred had a glimpse of me, he wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary. True, I still had the wipe on my person, but balled up tight in my fisted left. And once I made it across the road, I dropped the wad in the nearest bin ever so casually, without breaking stride. Just like one of those hardened cases who deftly ditch some link to their crime.