Tuesday, May 13, 2008


(I stayed in Atlanta from May 3-5)

I spent most of my time in Atlanta with a couple in their sixties who didn't actually live in Atlanta, but 30 minutes outside of it, leading to little interaction with the city of Atlanta itself. This was fine.

Sunday night we did go to Stone Mountain Park, which is essentially a Confederate shrine. It featured a single large rock that, if you were on Honey I Shrunk The Blog Reader it might resemble a bean or potato. It is, apparently, the biggest single rock in the world. Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis are all carved in its face. The park was filled with black people.

I decided to spend most of Monday dropped off in downtown Atlanta, far away from thick Confederate irony. We drove past a park where a bunch of guys were playing chess. There's something romantic to stepping into a park and playing chess with a bunch of crusty males. I mentioned the idea to Paul, my old and grumbly escort, to which he replied:

"Don't go over there. You have to remember, at all times, no matter how nice they seem or that they're your friend, that first of all, all they want is your money, and second of all, they all hate your guts."

I was stunned by the apparent avarice that these denizens all shared towards me, a bearded youth encumbered by a monstrous red backpack.

"If you go in there to play chess, they'll probably kill you and steal from you, and beat you at chess besides."

I enjoyed myself for a few moments by juggling the order of these three apparently inevitable destinies.

So instead of being robbed, killed, and defeated, I went to the CNN building. I sat myself down afterwards at the Olympic Central Park, which featured one of those big series of spurting fountains you throw your kids through for a couple of hours, shaped like the Olympic rings.

I sat in the shade and practiced the harmonica. I played random notes up and down the reed, hoping to get a feel for where the notes were. I'm beginning to realize that my chances of eventually playing a decent song on the harmonica are akin to the chances of a roomful of monkeys banging on typewriters eventually reproducing the entire works of Shakespeare. Our methodology seems eerily similar.

A sickeningly earnest teenage couple were sitting on a bench nearby. The boyfriend interrupted my harmonica tooting, which sounded not unlike a Choo Choo train sputtering awfully towards painful death, by asking if I was any good on "that thing."

Slightly miffed at such a fine instrument, a harp, being relegated to the defining status of an unknown and unimportant object, I explained that I was truly horrible.

"Oh," he said. "I was gonna ask you to play a song for me and mah girl here." That option dismissed, he instead hoisted his girlfriend and ran her through the Olympic fountain as the loudspeakers blared an obnoxious version of "Under the Sea."

I continued to play until a black man strode over and asked in a stringy and twangy voice if I "knew any songs." My expertise and experience again challenged, I summoned my courage and admitted complete and utter ineptitude at this the simplest instrument known to man. He professed to have played since he was 13 and asked to borrow it - he sat down next to me and played a few "songs," sounding more like he's played ever since he saw me sitting on the bench.

He interrupted his play by asking me if I was homeless.

Then he revealed that he didn't come over to play harmonica, but actually had a story for me. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" screamed my soul, as I nodded my head encouragingly. He made the process painful, drawing on a sticky note pictures of lost bus cards and the terrible arithmetic that he currently faced.

"I have to get to work by 6, and I gotta buy this bus pass. Say, what time you got?"
"It's 3:30."

The whole process was awful and elongated. I gave him a dollar in change (he needed 4), wished him luck, and went back to watching the fountain. The guy just sat there, held his head thoughtfully, then said "I'm just tryin' to think, 'cause I really need to get there..." I think to myself: you got 2 hours, buddy, to just bum $3 off of the other 30 people sitting in this park. "You got a credit card? There's an ATM over there in the CNN building..." Long story short, my conscience ground my reasoning into the floor and we went and I bought a postcard and gave him $3 out of change from my $20.

There is something about me that absolutely hates giving money to people who ask it of me directly, when I don't know the motive or character of the person. You begin to see yourself as a coin cow, wandering around the city and targeted merely as an object of potential benefit. As much as anyone gets to know you or compliment you or smile at you or play crappy melodies on your harmonica, you always feel your identity and individuality compromised once you're asked for some "spare change." I felt like less of a man, for some reason.

The whole time I was with that first guy, he was playing the clown, trying to keep me pleasantly entertained. He made up stories about his 4 year old kid, who apparently had memorized his times tables and could spell the word "philosophy," and had a 7 year old girlfriend. Everything he said was the most dramatic thing possible in the moment. It makes me wonder if this kind of interaction makes us both feel like less of people in the end. Me, for knowingly allowing myself to be deceived for the sake of conscience, and him, for resorting to pithy fictions and having to play a part for whatever purpose.

I met him again later the same day. I asked him about going to work, and he said that his boss called and told him not to come for some reason. (On his imaginary cell phone.) We both walked to the train station, where he revealed that he again needed money. I gave him another $3 or so...I don't remember.

Having counted, five people approached me and asked for change using the same techniques - offering directions, being particularly amiable for strangers, one guy even trying to give me free pamphlets and brochures he'd collected from everything downtown and then asking for change.

I believe in giving money to those who need it as well as those who ask for it. I believe we shouldn't be so questioning about the people and the motives. But then why don't I feel sunshiny and positive afterwards? Why do I run over the situation again and try to decide where I made a mistake? Why am I a little embarrassed about sharing this story?


Allie said...

I believe in giving money to those who need it as well as those who ask for it. I believe we shouldn't be so questioning about the people and the motives. But then why don't I feel sunshiny and positive afterwards?

I was thinking about this. I think this feeling, event, whatever, kind of embodies the idea of nice versus good. I'm having a really hard time seeing Abinadi giving money to the drunken hobos in Noah's land; I don't really see Moroni doing it either. In the Church the welfare system has predications: you have to be keeping the commandments, you have to be using the resources wisely. We have the PEF. The whole point of welfare is to help people get from where they are to somewhere better, not just to fund their evening beer.

I used to give money to beggars all the time, until I realized something: you see the same ones every time you walk that way. It's because they don't leave. They aren't trying to get jobs, or get help. They just want to sit on the side of the road and feel miserable for themselves and whatever. As long as they can make it through the day.

Did you know, there are tons of homeless shelters around, and soup kitchens that people are allowed and even encouraged to use--funded by your tax dollars, honey--that go unused every day? It's because you aren't allowed to enter the place drunk, and you must be 100% sober your entire stay there. Also, no smoking. And so suddenly a resource that could be useful to so many goes unused.

I think the reason you perhaps don't feel as sunshiny as you could is because... well, being poor and lazy is bad, and leads to a sad life, but your giving somebody $4 isn't going to make a difference. Instead, it makes them dependent and enables the cycle to continue. Nice is different than good... and good sometimes involves letting people fend for themselves.

I always hated my parents for being gone all the time and leaving me to take care of James, but now that it's over, I'm glad they did; that stuff made me who I am, even though it was hard and miserable. Yes, we should help people in their need, but sometimes, tribulation can be the greatest blessing. Wow, this is a long comment. Anyway, well, I'm sure we'll talk about this again at some point...the end.

John said...

I think Allie's right. You can't give in that way. If you do, you are not doing them a favor - you are aiding in their destruction through creating dependence. You want to give them self esteem and respect, and you want them to have that for you as well. They don't respect you if they themselves, who know they are worthless beggars, can fool you (in their minds they have less respect for you than themselves). That's at least why I felt low when I used to give to them - because if I'm being led by a beggar, instead of a leader or at least independent, then I'm worse than the beggar as far as my esteem and respect go. Don't let beggars order you around - beggars can't be choosers.