Once years ago, I was briskly walking across 57th Street in a fairly heavy rain during rush hour, when a guy bumped into me and dropped a brown paper bag on the sidewalk. I stopped, he picked up the bag, and showed me a broken bottle of expensive Scotch. He made it sound like my fault -- somewhat politely -- and then asked me for $20. I knew it was a standard scam right away (the bottle having been broken for previous street heists) but I was intimidated and didn't want to get the guy angry, so I said, look here's a couple of bucks. I knew it wasn't my fault. He accepted my "discount" offer. I warn tourists about this all the time, especially when the scammer has a broken pair of designer eyeglasses in the bag, and he's asking for $80 or more. It's amazing how often it works.
The more upfront and "legitimate" hustlers pose more interesting problems, and of course more thought. Hey, it's New York. This is a tough town.
The other day on the 7 subway line on the way to Queens, a young guy boarded my car and made a polite announcement about how he was a poet struggling to make a living. He then recited a decent enough poem, and passed the hat. I gave him two bucks. Yeah, I have a soft spot for whomever puts the touch on me in the name of literature, but street donations for me are really all about my current mood. It's also about whimsy; after all I'm a hardened urbanite.
Mostly, I admit I'm a curmudgeon who can't stand the lack of creativity of street hustlers. The worst are the yupsters on Broadway with clipboards asking whether I can spare a few minutes for the environment or gay rights. These types are known as "chuggers " in England, for "charity muggers." I can't stand them because their modus operandi is to make me feel guilty for not stopping and listening to their spiel (and making a donation to their cause). It may not even be their cause, as they get a commission on whatever you give. If one of them just said, "Look, I'm out here trying to make a buck, and I'm dead broke, and I don't even care about this, and if you donate fifty bucks I get five, so please, I'm desperate," I'd consider it. When I smile and say, no thanks, they say, "Have a nice day!" in the most chipper tone (and phony) way possible. Now I really hate these folks.
If a bum asks for some spare change and says, "Can I borrow some money? I need to get a bottle," I'm easy. I like honesty. I don't need to see his credit report.
The immigrants on the subway are more difficult to deal with intellectually because most are likely illegals, and they're desperate as well. And since I'm pro-American, hopelessly liberal, and fully understand our country was built by immigrants from day one, I have mixed feelings. I'm usually buried in a book on my Kindle, and on they come in trios -- guitar, banjo, and singer -- trilling out a tune, hoping for spare change. I often feel bad when I don't look up and worse when I don't reach in my pocket. Half the time I'm tempted to give them a dollar just to not play in front of me but there's no gracious and polite way to make this offer. So I silently stew, and I sometimes feel guilty.
Here's a weird thought: why doesn't the city make several subway stops places where street musicians can legally play? Have a contest? Any kind of competition? First come, first play? CD sales only with a permit, okay? (Publicize this instead of telling us how great their service is.) Quality wins out in the Big Apple, and if you can't cut it at the end of the shuttle line at Grand Central, you need to work your way up somewhere else. Once I saw a classical string quartet at this coveted spot -- obviously students slumming -- and the crowd was just throwing paper money at the open violin case. I added to their haul.