Monday, February 23, 2009

Supporting Beggars

When I first came to Madrid, it was my first time living in the big city. I had to learn a lot of new things like taxis, the subway, getting groceries home without a car, street performers and beggars. Beggars took me the longest to learn.

“Oh, they just need a helping hand. Look at this poor women sitting on cardboard with a cup out. She must be sixty years old. And cold. How sad. I will give her some money so she can buy some food.”

“Poor guy. Sitting on his heels with just his hand out and a forlorn look on his face. Clearly a mentally ill person who has fallen through the cracks.”

“That is an enormous homeless person. She doesn’t look too bright but it’s smart sitting outside a church so the pious will give her some change.”

Of course there are many types of beggars. And by beggars I mean people who rely on the kindness of others and have no guarantee of income for the way they spend their time. Like the pleasant black guy standing outside the Corte Ingles handing out newspapers, opening doors for old women and even helping people lift their carts up the steps. Wendy tells me it’s like a job, sort of. The papers are for sale for two dollars apiece but many people just give him loose change and don’t take a paper. I don’t know who the agency is that gives them the papers to sell, but I have never seen anyone but a black man selling them.

Other types would be street performers which come in all varieties. The simple musicians that play in the street. Usually accordions, sometimes crystal glasses, sometimes whole bands with accordion, flute, guitar, and bad songs or even groups with violins, cellos, portable keyboards playing classical music. There are also the living statues, people in make-up and costumes who try to stand stock still, without blinking, until someone drops a coin in their cup and then they’ll do a little flourish or a wave or allow a picture to be taken with them.

When I first came here I used to give money to all of them. The old woman sitting on a chair with her hand open by my dentists office. The fat woman swaddled head to toe sitting by the church. The thin mentally ill guy with the glasses sitting on his heels. The nice black guy at the Corte Ingles. The living statues that covered themselves in clay and dirt and looked like unfinished sculptures and even the accordion players. My savings were fat, they needed money and it made me feel good to “help” them. One of my favorites was the little angel dressed all in white, face and hair also painted white, little wand in her hand who stood near the palace. I would actually bring change along on runs because our route went by here and I wanted to give her a little something.

And now I’ve been here nearly two years. For one thing you start to realize you’re living on a set amount of money that isn’t going to last forever and… you’re giving it away to people. And you start to realize those people don’t need a hand up, they need you to keep supporting them forever. That black guy at the Corte Ingles? He’s still there. Selling papers, of which I have never bought. Crazy guy? Still there. Large woman by the church? She’s still there. Old lady sitting on a chair near my dentists office? All of them still there. And they will be there long after my savings are gone and I have become one of them.

And those musicians? You’re sitting outside on a nice spring day in the sun and they come along and play one song and then walk through the crowd with their hand out. It doesn’t matter if you were in the middle of a nice conversation and their annoyingly loud (and bad) music called a halt to that for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter that you hated the song they played. It doesn’t matter that you’re a captive audience. They want some cash. A few times of that and you stop giving money to musicians unless they’re on the street, as the crowd passes them by, not a captive audience, and playing something you appreciate with skill.

On top of that, Wendy and I have a terrace over a restaurant. Spaniards LOVE to sit in the sun. On any sunny day the terrace in front of the restaurant will be packed with Spaniards and tourists and about once an hour musicians come along and play “I did it my way”, “Tequila”, “Rock Around the Clock” or “Hello Dolly”, you know; all the Spanish classics.

“We’re gonna rock! Around! The…”

“Wendy, get the hose!”

Living statues are the same. The little angel still dresses all in white and stands on her white box in front of the palace but now she doesn’t even hold a wand. Or smile. And her pose is just standing with her arms bent at the elbow with her hands curled into loose fists, fingers up. Not too tough to hold that pose. She blinks a lot. She’s become the saddest little angel. And after you see some amazing street performers, you start to realize the mud and dirt living statues really are just dirty people sitting on a box. With their eyes closed. It’s not only lazy to be sitting but how much skill does it take to keep your eyes closed?

After a while you come to the inescapable conclusion that you can’t support everyone. Your beggar change becomes much more discriminating.

We have statues like wind-blown guy that looks as if he’s fighting a storm, clothes starched back and umbrella looking like it’s about to blow out of his hand who stands in an exhausting pose with eyes open. And tiny, beautiful women that sing opera in the streets and draw a circle of people around them they have such talent. We have the old couple that not only plays the accordion in front of the palace but sing and sway back and forth, arms around each other looking like they still have the same amount of love for each other as they did on their wedding day.

These people still garner some change when we pass.


  1. On the Vegas trip last week I saw several of the silver statue men and also one two headed guy, I think if you check youtube for french two headed street performer (or something like that) you will see him. He was fairly disturbing. When I see these guys I always wonder what kind of money they are bringing in. It takes a fair amound of work and dedication to do all that, clearly they could get "real" jobs if they wanted to, of course they would have to pay taxes and stuff then.

  2. Jamie, the black guys in front of all supermarkets sell La Farola, sometimes an interesting read. Don't give them the money, just buy the paper and read it. Good for your Spanish too :)

  3. I work in Boston next to Fenway Park and I don't give money to homeless vagrants because there's too many of them. I must pass 10 of them on a typical Summer night during baseball season as I walk to the train. I always wonder if they're making more money than I am.

  4. Love you Jamie. Old fan from the Dojo days. Stick to Magic. Politics are not your thing.

    A friend

  5. Help where you can. Don't feel bad about any of it. People don't beg on the street looking to make a career of it. You realize that they are still human beings. Some of your other readers don't seem to think so.