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The Alms Race

May 11, 2009

There’s a guy near my train station who sits on a bench selling copies of The Big Issue. It’s a magazine which gives part of the total earned by its sellers, who are homeless or otherwise disadvantaged, back to the sellers themselves.

It is my considered opinion that he is not particularly good at what he does. Or at any rate he pales in comparison to the guy at the other end of my train journey into the city, who also sells the magazine.

This opinion may be seen as particularly heartless, so I may as well confess it now: I don’t have a heart. I may have had one once, but it has now ossified into a hard, fused, immovable lump of breathtaking apathy and self-interest.

giving back

So let’s analyze the performance of these two fellows. The first guy, who I shall call Bill, carries along with his copy of the Big Issue, a few extra pounds. Now highly intelligent people such as myself know that if you are homeless or in financial difficulties, a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fresh produce is going to prove very expensive.

It is more probable that you dine at the cheaper fast food restaurants, where the more affordable food comes at the cost of it being composed almost entirely out of either fat, or sugar which your body will then turn into fat. So to hold poor Bill’s weight against him isn’t exactly fair.

However, most people are not highly intelligent. They see Bill and immediately assume that he can’t be doing too badly, as he seems to have ready access to a steady stream of tasty calories. The next area where Bill is going wrong is his placement.

Sitting on a bench, it is almost when you’ve already walked past him that you realize he is selling The Big Issue, the copies of which he keeps on the ground, almost entirely out of view. The magnificent Brisbane weather also works against him.

Sequestered on a bench under a leafy tree in bright sunshine, Bill really does not look as though he has a care in the world. Then, there is his pitch. Homeless or not, Bill has yet to realize that he is in show business. Merely saying the name of the magazine in a hoarse, resigned voice just isn’t going to cut it.

Finally, the reason for the hoarse voice. Bill is a smoker, and is usually to be seen with a ciggy dangling from the corner of his mouth. Even though I am not a smoker, I know that cigarettes aren’t exactly cheap these days. Logically, I admit that if you are homeless and spend a great deal of time sitting on an outdoor bench, then smoking is the perfect pastime. It not only gives you something to do, but also mercifully shortens your already difficult life.

But the majority of the general public, not blessed as I am with such a pragmatic outlook, will instead feel that they shouldn’t give money to someone who can afford such an expensive habit.

Now let us take a look at the other end of the spectrum, the guy in the city, who I shall call Ted. He is the Michael Jordan of Big Issue vendors. His spot is just outside the station, on the busy corner at the traffic lights.

This really seems like a bad choice. People at the crosswalk have their minds on other things. They don’t know when they will get the green signal to cross, so taking the time to fish around for change doesn’t seem practical. The other type of foot traffic, those going into the station, have trains to catch. They can’t afford to delay themselves.

location location location (Ted not pictured)

location location location (Ted not pictured)

It would seem that Ted is hopelessly out of his element. But there is a method to the madness. On a normal street, you can always avert your eyes and walk on by, pretending that you can’t stop right now, you have this really important meeting…

But at the lights, you are trapped. Ted knows you’re not going anywhere. There you are, dressed for a day at work, a whole day of doing nothing but making money, and there is Ted, an honest man without steady employment, with nothing except a bunch of magazines.

And the mags aren’t placed on the ground, he’s carrying them in a tattered satchel, which looks as though it could burst at any moment, compelling you to buy one and lighten Ted’s load. He also uses the weather to his advantage. Decked out in a large coat, you can almost feel the stifling heat that surrounds him. You think: It’s probably his only coat. He has nowhere to keep it during the day, and needs it at night. So he is doomed to forever bake under the pitiless sun. Oh the tragedy! Isn’t there anything you can do for him? Why yes, kind stranger, there is.  -I’ll buy a copy, Ted, in fact let me take a couple.

And finally, the pitch. No weary mumblings here. Ted is all action. “Ladies and gentlemen, what a glorious day I’ve put on for you today! Enjoy it folks, I may not be here tomorrow and then it’s grey skies for all! But not today. What great weather for kicking back and reading a magazine. And all for loose change! Get rid of your loose change, get a magazine, enjoy the sunshine, how can you lose?”

With energy like that, how can Ted lose? I must admit that sometimes on my way home, after having bought a magazine from Ted, I get off at my station and then confronted with Bill, I feel so sorry for him I grab a mag off him as well. At home, I stare at the two copies of the Big Issue and wonder: “Are they working together?

I suppose that it is a sad indictment on society that we expect entertainment even from those who are struggling to make ends meet, but we are being conditioned to learn that if even elderly dowdy Scottish ladies can become international superstars, then surely everyone has some talent with which to amuse us? And if you choose not to share it with us, then you get voted off, or we avert our eyes as we pass by, eager to catch the next sensation.

I also find myself putting my compassion up for tender when it comes to buskers. Some croaky old Bob Dylan number on a beat up guitar? That is so cliche, how can I patronise such hackery? But a soulful rendering of an unknown Joan Baez track by a girl who has also gone to the trouble of wearing the long floral dress? Then my only problem is how much can I give without seeming creepy.

Too many coins in the case? Then I don’t think you need any of mine. Too few? Well it seems the people have spoken. Why should I support someone who obviously has no talent? I’ll save my two bucks for an act who could theoretically make it big, and then I will have no guilt trips about downloading their albums for free, because I helped to put them where they are today.

It is not only as individuals that we are confused when it comes to giving from our hearts. A study has shown that in Britain, it is actually the poor who give a greater proportion of their income to charity than the rich. The poorest fifth gives away three per cent of its income to charity. The richest fifth give away one per cent. It is also remarked on that the Poms give more to animal charities than to human ones.

In 2006, the much maligned Yanks gave 1.7% of their country’s economy to charity, while Britain came in at less than half that at 0.73% of the national economy. Furthermore, in America there is not the stark class divide that there is in Britain, with respect to giving to charity, with all segments of society from the very rich to the poor giving the same proportion of their income to good causes.

It is interesting to speculate on why these differences might exist. Some have said that the U.S. is the land of the entrepreneur, where you pull yourself up by the bootstraps, make a fortune and then complete the fairytale by ‘giving back’ to your community.

Whereas in Britain, a lot of extreme wealth comes from the aristocracy where it is handed down (“Old Money”) rather than accumulated through the vulgarity of business. As such, perhaps continuing the family wealth lines could be seen to be more important than giving it all away to charity, to the types of people who probably don’t even have a family coat of arms.

But just as we might be inclined to cut the Americans some slack, it turns out that while individual American citizens give a lot to charity, the U.S. government are not so ready with the purse-strings. In 2002-03, when the War on Terror kicked off, the U.S. government gave an underwhelming 0.13% of its GDP toward overseas aid. Of the 23 richest countries on the planet, that would mean that Uncle Sam comes in dead last. And when you consider the billions (and billions) that has since been spent on that merry adventure, it really looks especially bad.

Not only that, but the overseas aid the government does give, includes politically strategic places like Egypt, Israel, Russia and Serbia, places which aren’t exactly in the grip of famine and pestilence, when you would think aid should be firstly and mostly given to those who need it the most urgently.

Here in Australia, when the recent bushfires tore through Victoria and razed so many houses to the ground, the nation came together as one and donated unprecedented amounts. However, at the very same time, floods ravaged parts of Queensland, but the funds didn’t trickle in as fast as the rivers did.

It appears that fires are just sexier. People can understand a house getting burnt to the ground. The pictures are amazing. Walls of flame bearing down on communities, firetrucks speeding into the maws of hell from where terrified people are rushing out from, cuddly koalas in peril, incredibly photogenic ruins – a bushfire has it all.

ratings goldratings gold

But a flood? Dirty brown water, silt and sludge and dead bloated cows? Not exactly jaw-dropping. Despite the extensive damages, there seems to be a public perception that once the waters recede, a good mopping up will set everything right.

Some charities are just cooler than others. Breast cancer? Cool. Bowel cancer? Uncool. Free Tibet? Incredibly cool. (The Dalai Lama is the Samuel L. Jackson of charitable causes). Millions dying in Darfur? Where’s Darfur again? Some manage to turn the tide of popular opinion. When it first began claiming lives, AIDS was not exactly a cause that could count on widespread support, whereas now celebrities fall over themselves in the rush toward a red ribbon.

Charities now regularly employ the services of public relations firms in order to increase their ‘visibility’ and woo the high end of town. Just like corporations, charities squabble over the right celebrity to be their ‘face’. Organizations like Greenpeace sometimes outsource to other agencies for people to do public collections and sign-ups on their behalf, and it is no coincidence that many of them are blonde and perky.

If it brings in more money, I guess that the ends justify the means, but I’m pretty sure the whole point of charity is that it can’t be rationalized and economically accounted for, it resides not in the world of global markets but global conscience.

Then there is the case of “compassion fatigue”. I think once your society even gets to a place where such a term becomes needed, it is a fairly clear indicator that you are heading in the wrong direction. Are there really people out there who say “enough with the Katrina footage already – isn’t there a ballgame on?”

Yes there are. Me for example. After handing over my gold coin donation, I was pretty much ‘over’ the whole tsunami thing, and couldn’t see why the endless “specials” on T.V. took priority over my regular programming. If you find a whole island of people who survived by making boats out of tied-together coconuts, then that’s a story. If not, let me get back to the footy.

And above all, be upfront if you are seeking the public dollar. Once as I was walking around in town, enjoying the sunshine and pumping some funky Motown flavours into my ears, a guy in an orange robe smiled serenely at me and waved me to stop. Not knowing whether his beliefs prevented him from enjoying funky Motown flavours, I took pity on him, took off my headphones and stopped.

He introduced himself with a very disappointing non-mystical name. (Think Bill, think Ted). -Did I practice yoga? -No, but I immensely enjoy yoghurt. Not a trace of a smile. He then lectured me about the various benefits of yoga and how it isn’t just stretching and lentils.

But that accent was so strange and out of character that I had to inquire. “Well, I am from Estonia originally”. What did that ‘originally’ mean? Is he now from somewhere else? And Estonia? How can you have an Estonian yogi? It’s like having a non-asian martial arts instructor. No matter how good he actually is, you always feel like you are missing out.

Anyway, eventually he came around to the hard sell. He asked whether I would be interested in reading a short book about the finer points of what he had been discussing. In a novel twist, he took off his cap and pointed apologetically to his shaved head. “Now as a monk, I’m not allowed to sell things for profit, but perhaps you would care to make a donation and enjoy the book as a gift?”

What kind of malarky was this? This seemed to be the type of creative accountancy usually reserved for more unholy spectres like Bernie Madoff. -How much is the usual ‘donation?’ I asked, making sure that he could hear the quotation marks. Perhaps not wanting to sully his soul with all this haggling, he said something to the effect of ‘People give what they are comfortable with’ which I thought was a brilliant way of saying ‘depends on how much of a cheapskate you are’.

“I’ll give you a dollar”. Little did he know he was dealing with someone who had a gold medal in cheapskating. A less than divine frown littered his brow. “Well, five dollars is usually what people give.” Here I was, in a Mexican stand off with an Estonian. -But like you said, that was a donation. Now that I look in my wallet, it doesn’t seem like I even have a dollar coin. Sorry, but I will just have to accept your generous ‘gift’ without a donation.

Gazing firmly into my eyes, he said without missing a beat, and as though inquiring about my health, “Do you have a five dollar note in your wallet?” This was hardball. Okay Stephen, let’s play. -Yes, yes it looks like I do. Do you have four dollars change in your little purse there?

He smiled a smile of one who is about to do something very unsmiling and a chill ran through me. Was he one of those kung-fu monks? Was I going to have my eyelids pulled over my kneecaps and then spun onto a bamboo spike?

He turned to someone else coming down the street and began his spiel again. They ignored him and kept walking on. He tried again, same result. So there we were. Him ignoring me, people ignoring him, and me enjoying the whole thing. -Looks like a dollar would be a lot more than what you seem to be getting.

He briefly glanced at me in a patronizing way, pitying my unclean spirit, then went back to his futile but noble quest. I stayed for a while, very uncharitably enjoying his lack of success, but then eventually compassion fatigue set in, especially in my calves, and I had to be on my way, my wallet as unenlightened as my soul.


-viva minutiae,


7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2009 1:29 pm

    And you say you haven’t a heart? The part about homeless coat heat really struck a chord with me. I’ve always wondered how the people of the street can survive the heat with all those layers. My theory is that it’s to protect them from the coldness of society. You really are very good.

  2. May 13, 2009 9:12 pm

    Cheers, Ramblin’.

    If you somehow manage to stumble across an Australian movie/documentary called “The Finished People”, I’d highly recommend giving it a view. It’s hard to strike a correct tone when dealing with the homeless, as you usually end up too sanctimonous, or else heartlessly superficial. But ‘The Finished People’ is both a very real look at the lives behind the invisibility of homelessness, as well as a mirror held up to what you call the “coldness of society”.

  3. May 14, 2009 1:39 pm

    Right on… will put it on my list of “difficult things to find where I live”.
    Clerk: “The Finished People? Does that have Tom Cruise in it?”

  4. goldenfelix permalink
    June 25, 2009 4:32 pm

    Hey I’ve seen “Ted”! he rocks. lots of energy, friendly, most people love his banter. more Ted, less credit card people on our streets!

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