Back when I used to take the F train to work the night shift, I used to see a particular homeless guy a lot. Everybody saw him a lot. He would enter the car and make the same loud announcement every time, soliciting money and always ending with this: “If you can’t spare any money, at least have a smile.”
Sweet, right? Only there was always something just a little malicious about this guy. He seemed a bit on edge, ready to crack. His request for a smile seemed more like an angry demand. Sometimes he’d make snide comments about people who weren’t smiling. Once, I walked into the train while he was getting into it with some guy at the other end of the car. I’m not sure exactly what they were arguing about, but it was loud and it was a little scary.
Then I stopped taking the F train to work and didn’t see him for a while. About a year ago, I moved to Queens and started taking the F again — but by that time, I was no longer working nights, and I didn’t see him during the morning rush hour. I guess he likes to sleep late.
Today I came into the office late — I had a doctor’s appointment. So there I am on the F, barely into Manhattan, and suddenly, there he is. He barges into the car quite loudly. I’m reading a book. His speech is not the usual. It seems to start in the middle, and it goes something like this: “I see some people every day. Some of them give me money. Some of them never give me money. It shouldn’t be so hard to give me something a little once in the while. Same people every day. Some of them never give me a thing. If you can’t spare anything, at least have a smile.”
He starts working his way through the car, but it doesn’t take long before the woman sitting next to me — right next to me! — pipes up. “Why don’t you get a job?” she shouts. She has an accent I can’t quite place. “I see you every single day! Always bothering everyone! Get a job!”
“Why do you have to be like that?” he says, his voice getting angrier with every word. “Just because you don’t like black people, that’s no reason to be mean! I’m not mean like that! I’m a good person! If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be in the United States of America! Where are you from?”
“It’s none of your business where I’m from!” she yells. “I am an American! I am a citizen of the United States of America!” I’m still sitting right there. I do not look up from my book. By this point, giving him even a smile is quite out of the question.
“Do you have a green card?” he bellows. “I was born in America! Your problem is you don’t like black people! You should just leave! I see the same people every day and some of them are very nice to me! They give me smiles! You’re being nasty! Listen, you don’t want to mess with me! You come find me! I’m the wrong guy to mess with!”
“Yes, I’m being nasty!” she retorts. “I’m a nasty person!”
“You’re nasty, you’re nasty!” he says, in the manner of someone who wants to argue but has just been told something he can’t argue with.
“Yes, I’m nasty!” she says. “You need to go to school! Get a job! You’re here every day!”
“You know what my grandson says?” he asks her. “Don’t hate — appreciate!”
And it goes on like that. On and on and on. As he gradually worked his way through, he loudly commented on everyone who gave him money: “Look, this gentleman gave me a dollar!” “Look, this lady has something for me! She’s not hating!” But he left eventually. And you know what? I did not look up from that book even once. The moral of the story is that smile guy is an annoyance — I’ve never seen a single other subway panhandler argue with anybody — but angry accent lady was way more of one this afternoon. One minute of mild discomfort very easily turned into five minutes of extreme discomfort. And for what? What’s he going to do, stop panhandling? Go to school? With his grandson?
The other moral is: Don’t look up.