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August 1st, 2007

A TOWN WITHOUT PITY

by Christian McLean

The True and Tragic Tale of a Young Man’s Failed Social Experiment.
While some of us are lucky enough to have family and friends with places in the Hamptons, paying our rent in NYC and buying a ticket out east can be too much for our wallets to bear. On a crowded street in mid-May, I saw a disheveled man holding a sign that stated his parameters: “I’m not a drug addict, I just need money for food.” The image stayed with me and as Memorial Day Weekend approached, I thought, why can’t I have a sign asking for a little help? Surely Manhattan would embrace a clean-cut, twentysomething, white male who had to get to the Hamptons for the weekend. Right? Didn’t everyone realize that after such a drab spring I was starving for the ocean and some open space?

On the Thursday morning before Memorial Day Weekend, I designed a wardrobe: khaki pants, pink Polo button-down (a must for the summer season), matching pink argyle socks, saddle shoes, and a beach hat to collect the spoils. I made two cardboard signs. On the first sign I scribbled, “I’m not homeless, I need to get to the Hamptons!” while the second read, “Wish you were in the Hamptons? So do I!!!”

I had serious moral questions about what I was going to do. Something told me it was wrong. But I was eager to see if New Yorkers were willing to give me money. I assured myself that if I could actually raise enough money to reach the Hamptons it would be an interesting commentary on where humankind rested its values (food for the homeless vs. funding extravagances).

I grabbed my copy of Roddy Doyle’s A Star For Henry, figuring I’d have some downtime between passers-by littering me with cash and heading out on the town. I felt that people would get such a kick out of my idea – that they would appreciate the irony so much – that I would have the money for the trip in no time.

First stop – 42nd Street subway terminal. The causeway connecting the A/ C/ E and the rest of the trains seemed ideal.When I found the right spot, I set up shop. Sitting down, I rested a cardboard sign on each side of my legs. I placed the hat on the tile floor and dropped in two of my own quarters (hoping others would follow suit). Herds passed with nothing more than a gaze. They seemed too busy to stop and read the sign. Had I made the words too small?  Was I targeting the wrong demographic? Eventually, three young, black males walked past and started laughing, “He thinks he’s goin’ to the Hamptons,” one said, but they didn’t leave a cent.

Fifteen minutes after establishing my spot, a police officer approached and my heart sank.

Anal and ornery he asked, “You all right?”

“Yes.”

“You sick?” he pushed on.

“No.”

“Then get up?” I gathered my things and stood. “Don’t you think it’s kind of rude to sit there with all these people walking?”

Was that how he spoke to the other panhandlers? With such an attitude it was obvious he wasn’t going to the Hamptons this weekend, either. He probably wasn’t going anywhere and the thought that someone had come up with a brilliant plan for escaping NYC didn’t sit well with him. Jarred by the experience, I left the station.

I caught the C to The Museum of Natural History. A museum draws a nice crowd and the Upper West Side is prime real estate for Hamptonites. I had only been on the steps for five minutes when a man walking past, said, “What a great sign,” and dropped two dollars in my hat. I had hit the jackpot. The money was sure to be rolling in from that point forward. I read my book while a constant flow of pedestrians walked past. Twenty minutes later, no one else had stopped. Flocks of junior high school children milled about; some laughed, others read the signs out loud in broken English puzzling over what they meant, but no one fronted any money.

About an hour into the stay at the museum, it occurred to me that besides the children, most of the people who surrounded me were tourists. I put down my book and listened to their voices. Spanish, German, French-no one spoke English. They don’t know where the Hamptons are, or how important it is to get there.

Ten minutes later something else happened. A man in tattered clothing began to pick through a trashcan ten yards from me. Reality set in. I put down my signs and recognized there was more than a weekend in the sun at stake. This wasn’t about making light of anyone’s life. Picking up my gear, I left the museum.

After visiting my girlfriend (who lived nearby and was appalled – from a humanitarian standpoint – at what I was doing) for a free lunch, I moved to the church steps at the corner of Broadway and West 79th Street. Right near the subway station there was a heavy flow of foot traffic, but I got nothing—not a dime, not even a condescending look.

I went to Chelsea. Figuring it would be a great place for a boy like me to turn a buck, I reclined at the subway entrance on 15th and 8th. As commuters climbed out of the dark stairwell, they were met by my bright pink shirt and cardboard signs. Several women laughed, but no one helped the cause.

It was devastating. An entire day of panhandling and only $2 to show for it. Memorial Day Weekend began in less than 24 hours and I couldn’t hustle up the cash for a weekend of surf and seersucker. Was I going to have to stay in the city with the have-nots?

Hell, no! My girlfriend took pity on me and put my train ticket on her almost maxed out credit card. In return, I bought her breakfast in Penn Station. The egg and cheese sandwich cost about two bucks, and as we packed into the cattle cars for the Hamptons, I thought, maybe I’ll have better luck begging on the Upper East Side for the Fourth of July.

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