Yesterday, I had business in the city and left just a new rain storm arrived. Everyone on the BART platform looked quite tucked in. When I got off the train at Powell, I noticed more homeless than usual were sitting with their backs pressed to the sides of the long white tunnel leading to 4th St. Most were single men, happy to be out of the rain, but one group that looked as if they had been scraped from a pen and ink illustration in a Dickens novel stopped me cold. A mother and her three children, all wearing threadbare coats and fingerless gloves, huddled in a heap. Their eyes were flat, their mouths tightly closed, and their bodies seemed genuinely limp with hunger. The mother clutched a cardboard sign reading simply Anything helps. Nearby a hat had been upended and passers-by had thrown dollars and change into its deep pit. I emptied my pockets into that hat. I wondered if this mother understood that such panhandling could cause her to lose her children to foster care or if that is what she was hoping. When I turned away, my cheeks were wet with tears.
I tried to remember when I had last seen a mother begging with her children. Not too many years ago, I had seen men with young boys, mothers clasping babies in the marketplace in Nigeria, the adults and the older children pushing brightly colored plastic bowls into the hands of shoppers, hoping for a few spare Naira. And much longer ago, decades ago, I had been accosted by mothers wearing flowery headscarves on the train platform in Sarajevo, their red-cheeked babies swaddled and wrapped tightly to their breasts. Those mothers jostled against one another and held their hands out, hoping again for small change, spitting violently on the train platform if refused. After spending time living in Belgrade with those who had convinced me that Tito’s regime provided adequately for all, these maternal beggars served as the first sign that all was not as copasetic as I had been led to believe. And even longer ago, I recall a shy young mother standing at the edge of a field, coaxing her young children to dash through the waist high flowers towards us, a group of well-fed teenage girls picnicking at the roadside on our way to Huaras in the high mountains of the Andes. I handed them my fruit and broke my sandwich in two, gave them both halves.
But here, in the US, do I recall mothers begging with children? Once back in the early 1980s in NY in winter. I was living in the wilds of South Brooklyn then, long before it was yuppified, years before Mayor Giuliani kicked the homeless to the moon. The economy had slipped. Unemployment was as high then as now, and it was harder than ever for those who were out of work to find any assistance to make it through hard times. Reagan’s “trickle down” theory of economics obviously didn’t work, and those who held the wealth obviously didn’t care. Sound familiar? Too familiar. What trickled down, what trickles down, was/is dust.
The only reasonably priced supermarket serving the area was a Pathmark near the Gowanus Canal, and because so many lived under highway overpasses and behind empty warehouses with their possessions piled in hopping carts, the store was ‘caged.' Six-foot metal posts had been planted in front of the store with gaps between them wide enough to allow most adults to pass through but not wide enough to permit the passage of a shopping cart. Carts that locked if taken past an invisible barrier at the edge of the sidewalk had not ye been invented. After passing through these steel bars, shoppers had to walk down a long wide hall that had numerous small shops – a newspaper stand, a barber shop, a florist, etc – on either side before reaching the brightly lit supermarket, always an interesting place to shop. Just as many people went there to eat as to buy. Empty juice bottles, crumpled potato chip bags and even wrappers of bologna packs were stuffed on shelves beside the spaghetti sauce and canned corn. The security guards were a friendly lot; they looked the other way, picked up the trash, and disposed of it. People needed to eat, and as long as no one pointed a finger at an individual 'diner' and as long as the food was swallowed completely, it was hard to press shoplifting charges. I saw entire families eating what might have been their one meal of the day.
The red-letter December day I remember so clearly was bitterly cold; snow was threatening. The wide hall leading to the supermarket was lined with people, including mothers with children, all standing elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, with their backs to the windows of the small shops, all with arms stretched out, hands holding cups, hats, boxes, buckets, anything that might serve as a receptacle for spare (or not so spare) change. For once, I broke my ‘dollar a day’ rule for handouts to panhandlers. I reached into the pocket of my own threadbare Goodwill woolen overcoat and found about three dollars in change, money for subway tokens. I handed those coins to the mothers with children, gesturing to my own children and explaining I had to feed them, that's all I had to give. The mothers nodded. They understood; they were my neighbors.
Then South Brooklyn was a zone well away from the well-heeled and comfortable. The poor were begging from the poor, but yesterday, the mother panhandling with her children had taken her pleas to those who lived in the glittering world of shimmer and shake. Exiting the Powell Street station, Market Street unfolds. Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, boutiques, coffee shops, streetcars, and oodles of tourists, all with money to spend, and underneath that street one mother huddled with her children, risking all, hoping for enough money to buy dinner.
That reality was enough to break my heart, but then today, driving to the store, I saw yet another family standing bundled up on a street corner, each adult with a with cardboard sign, reading Drug Free and Thank you for Anything you can Give. The mother stood with one hand on the stroller, the other on the sign. A small baby nestled comfortably in the belly of the stroller; a toddler stood beside.
Twice in two days. Is this a trend? I hope not.