Thursday, August 9, 2012

Beggar at the Door

As a child I lived on the fringes of Europe in small towns—and I am also old enough to remember seeing beggars at the door. They didn’t appear frequently, but frequently enough so that in large households (and beggars avoided the wretched sort), giving was routine and institutionalized: food had been set aside; if no food was handy a few coins were passed into the outstretched hand. Minutes ago the telephone rang. I glanced at my watch. Just past nine a.m. The beggars on the telephone. What happens is that I say: “Yes?” and at first there is silence, then comes an echoing space with multiple voices faintly heard; a telephone bank; then comes the caller’s voice—at some delay. Today by chance I recalled my childhood. It’s the same thing—modernized. At the point where our area intersects with the Interstate, beggary in the old guise is alive as well. Usually on the off-ramp stands a man with a little cardboard sign, hand lettered: “Hungry.” Sometimes there is another man on the on-ramp too. Modern traffic lights help them stop the flow. As in my childhood, so today, the response is institutionalized. We keep a dollar bill under the visor on the driver’s side. The red light doesn’t last long enough to give you time to worm a billfold out from under, extract a bill, roll down the window, and hand it over. The telephone kind gets short shrift. “The poor will always be with you…”

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