No one has ever become poor by giving.Anne Frank
Writing about food means considering where it comes from. Not just eating the bread, but buying the bread. And what it takes to buy bread. And sometimes, like a punch to the gut, it becomes apparent that this simple process is not so simple. A few centimes at the boulangerie, pocket change; but sometimes, a few centimes…
Some while back, when Mom was visiting, we go to church of a Sunday. Max is having none of it, so I strap him in the baby björn and walk around the back of the cathedral, into side chapels, stop him from blowing out votives, resist the urge to let him splash in the holy water font (he really wants to), and finally, because he’s getting louder and louder, head onto the steps out front. Sitting to the right of the door is a sunburnt, kerchiefed gypsy woman, imploring passersby for change. Every time you cross the threshold she catches your eye, every time seeming to say “You’re not going to walk past again, are you?” I stand a ways off to the left, offering Max a bottle, listening to the accordion player sitting by the fountain (the man has chops!), and just watching life in the Place. Pigeons, kids on scooters, la vie en rose. I’ve been there for several minutes, people passing by, when I hear a voice at my elbow,
A well-dressed woman, older than me, younger than my mother, sixtyish, holding her hand out to me. It’s Sunday, I’m dressed nice, not extravagant: khakis, a matching casual sport coat, aforementioned baby in a harness, I haven’t shaved for a couple of days (OK, about 5 days), but I look more than presentable. I mention this because I notice that the woman is not reaching out to me, but holding a 50 centime coin. I gesture that no, I didn’t drop it, and….in that split second realize she’s not attempting to return it, she’s offering it to me. Along with the gypsy woman, a man standing on the church steps with a child, neither going in nor out must be a mendicant. I perversely feel a bit ashamed. The woman realizes her error, and I see she’s embarrassed, but not terribly so, as she mumbles a “pardon” and not-quite-hurries away. I look to the gypsy woman, give a clumsy smile and “what can ya do?” shrug. She looks disgusted.
I immediately find the nearest reflective surface, a nearby shop window, to verify my appearance, which is that of a middle-class, middle-aged dad, relatively well-dressed, with an adorable child strapped to me. Max looks healthy and happy, relatively clean, and did I mention adorable? It’s unsettling, because I know the woman meant well, but there was a pretty obvious honest-to-god beggar not seven feet away. I hadn’t been paying attention, so I don’t know if she offered the gypsy a coin as well, but judging from the look I got I’d say no.
So why did she? And why do I feel so bad that she did?
Is it guilt for all the times I haven’t given to others? I don’t have an ironclad rule about how to handle charity – it’s sort of a case by case basis. If the person is making an honest effort (defined by personal, inarticulable parametres) I sometimes give; if a person looks truly needy; if we’ve established a rapport; and there are my ‘regulars’ that I tend to support, again for some unknowable quality defined by me….but I don’t give to them all. I’m sure there are many whom I should give to, who truly need the charity, who through no fault of their own find themselves in the situation. There are some hustlers, and I’m sure I’ve been hustled. There are quite a few who consider begging their ‘job’, and honestly, in Europe at least, that’s pretty much an expected and accepted part of the social fabric. It’s always struck me as…odd?…interesting?…telling?…the way different cultures embrace (or don’t) those asking for aid. Like I said, in Europe it’s an accepted part of society – there are irritating beggar/hustlers here as well, don’t get me wrong, but for the most part the attitude is not one of “brush them under the rug”, more of “there, but for the grace of God”; in Muslim countries, it’s one of the pillars of Islam to give a portion of what you have to the less fortunate – the religion literally commands all Muslims to be charitable, or you won’t fare well in the afterlife. In India it can be a lifelong profession, there are even formal organizations and class structures within the mendicant society. In America, we tend to…mostly…just wish it would go away. I know there are many fine charitable organizations and individuals, but on the street, on the church steps, on the subway, we really do tend to turn a blind eye, disappear into our cell phones, find the transit ads fascinating, or just simply pretend it doesn’t/they don’t exist. I’m as guilty of this as the next phone-burrower.
But that is neither here nor there – she was offering the coin to me. This wasn’t guilt for not giving, it was shame for being perceived as needy. But I’m not needy, doing alright, thank you, and even if I was I don’t see the shame in it, we’re supposed to help one another. I get a second and third opinion on my appearance, from my wife and my mother – two people of all in this world who would not hesitate to tell me if I looked like a beggar – and I’m assured that, barring a shave, I look fine.
So…..why? I felt bad that someone had offered to help me. Pride, I suppose. On some gut level. But if so, the foolish kind.
And it’s continued to bother me. This was a couple of years ago now – Max is long past the strapped-to-my-chest stage, although still adorable. It bobbed to the surface again today as I passed the church and again saw a gypsy woman sitting to the right of the door holding out a cup to passersby. It was summer then, winter now. Her hands were bare, face masked, probably not enough of a coat for the weather – it might have been the same woman, I honestly couldn’t say, and a part of me feels lousy about that as well. I have never been truly needy. Fortunate enough, through no effort, intention, nor merit of my own to be born into prosperity and promise. But still…
In that moment I felt the sting of being perceived as needy. Where was my bread coming from? And even filtered through 2 years of comfort, I have no doubt it was only the tiniest fraction of what the gypsy woman felt every second someone avoided her eyes on the church steps.
This morning I emptied my pockets of change and poured it all into the outstretched cup, and even that felt somehow false – here, let me make it up to you.
Where is your bread coming from?