25 March 2007

Beggars and Choosers

There's an old saying that "beggars can't be choosers." But how does one be a chooser when dealing with beggars?

It's a question that's long bothered me, and not just in Russia - in cities where there are so many homeless or otherwise needy people begging for money on the streets, how does one ethically decide whom to give money to? This, of course, is based on the assumption that there is an ethical way to make that decision; I'm not sure there really is.

Some might argue that the only moral thing to do is to give to everyone, for they are suffering, their lives a constant struggle. The only right thing to do is to do as much as possible. The other end of the spectrum is to give to nobody. Such an action might be grounded in the belief that these are people who choose not to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps," or would simply use the money for drugs and alcohol. Or, one might conclude that because giving to everyone isn't possible and giving to only some would be arbitrary, the only morally consistent course of action is to give nothing.

I don't wish to resolve these questions philosophically, as there are others far more qualified to do so. But I do have to resolve this question practically for myself, as I find myself faced with this matter every day as I walk down the street and see the entire spectrum of beggars in Moscow. The truth is, my heart goes out to most of those I see, for regardless of what they're going to do with the money afterwards, I am saddened by the unfortunate path that their life has taken. And so, I find myself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum - unable and I suppose unwilling to give to all, but forced to make several such seemingly arbitrary decisions every day.

On whole, there seem to be fewer beggars around Moscow than I remember when I first came here 7 years ago. Back then they were on the streets, in underpasses, in metro stations and transfers, and even on the metro cars themselves, giving a brief speech about their tragedy before shuffling down the aisle with a hat out for collection. While you'll still see them in all of these places, their numbers are far fewer than there used to be. I have a feeling that this has less to do with Russia's economic prosperity of the last few years - how would the oil boom ever trickle all the way down to them? - and more to do with the Moscow Mayor's efforts to "clean up" the city. And so, while there are fewer that I pass every day, they're still there and there's still a decision to be made that's difficult for me.

I'll confess, I have the least sympathy for men, especially the seedy characters that hang around kiosks waiting for you to receive your change, then slither up next to you and ask for some money just as you're pulling out your wallet to put the change away. I've always felt uncomfortable by these encounters, of only because my wallet is exposed and vulnerable at that moment. On top of this, such men are usually slurrinng and stumbling a bit; in all likelihood, the change will go right back to the kiosk operator in exchange for something to "warm up" the insides. I don't feel too bad about refusing these people.

War veterans are another matter. Sometimes they too appear intoxicated, but sometime they also appear without an arm or a leg, or some combination of missing appendages. I always refuse the former, and sometimes the latter as well, I suppose on the grounds that even if he's not drunk now, he probably will be in a few hours. I trace my seemingly callous attitudes toward alcoholics to my own family's history with the disease, and while I know it might seem harsh, I have a hard time finding room in my heart for those engaged in such destructive behavior. Yet I'm never really comfortable with the decision, for he is still a human being, and one whose life shattered while serving his country. Doesn't he deserve some pity and a few rubles too?

One will often see young women with very small children, even babies, begging as well. Usually I find them in or around underpasses. They tend to be dark-skinned, the fact that they've been reduce to begging a testament to the difficulties faced by those who come to this country from the "near abroad." I've always had mixed feelings about giving to these women. On the one hand, I'm afraid that the money I give them will be supporting a drug habit, or the drug habit of an abusive husband, boyfriend, or "protector." And again I feel sick inside because I've made an awful assumption about a person based on stereotypes. But I can't get away from it, and my gut gets pulled in both directions - sympathy and insensitivity. With these young mothers the former feeling usually prevails, and I pray to myself as the money falls from my hand into her can that it will buy some food for the child.

The next group of beggars I commonly encounter are the musicians. I used to only see classical musicians - violins, trumpets, accordians, etc. and the occasional quartet - playing in the mero transfers and underpasses. Today you'll not only see these players but also a new generations of youngsters with guitars and often an electronic amp or two. Maybe it's because I'm an amateur musician myself (trombone), but I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Moscow's musicians. After all, most of them are extraordinarily talented - far more talented than I ever was. Their skill took years of hard work to develop. They should have the opportunity to make a better living with their stirring melodies, but have been forced to take their acts to the streets, the only place where they can earn some money from those years of investment. And so I'll gladly drop a couple of bills in the hat of the old gent playing the accordian or the young woman with her cello. I do, however draw the line at the electric guitars, figuring that if they can afford the amp, maybe they don't need my money as much as others...

Finally, we have the babushkas. These are the ancient, wrinkled gargoyles, wrapped in threadbare padded coats with their heads wrapped in faded scarves. I call them Moscow's gargoyles less because of their appearence and more because they've seen it all in their tormented lifetimes, watching Moscow and Russian transform through the ages: the hope of a new society, the darkness of terror, the starvation of war, the promise of hope renewed, the comfort of stability, and finally disillusionment and disappointment when it was revealed that it was all a sham. These women sacrificed so much - whether willingly or not - in their lifetimes, and now all they can do to survive is to stand on the sidewalk, hunched over leaning on a cane, holding out a little tin cup. It breaks my heart every time I see one. This is not how things should be.

And while I drop a few rubles into the babushkas' cups as I pass by, I've developed a little tradition that I carry out every time I visit Russia. Like most men, I never spend my pocket change, and it just accumulates in the desk drawer. On my last day in Russia, I always gather up all my loose change without counting it, put it in a plastic bag, and wander the city in search of a babushka in need. When I find her, I carefully place the bag in her can, look her in the eye, and simply state, "God be with you."

I know it's impossible to make a difference in every poor person's life in this city, but I like to think that in the very least I just made a difference in her life, if only for the few days she can live on my money.

1 comment:

violainvilnius said...

I sympathise fully with your comments, being faced with this all the time, wherever I seem to live (and even worse, working in the 'social sector'. The other received wisdom is that giving money causes more people to come on the street....not sure about that. On the young women with the babies, World Vision did a study in Georgia which found that there was a thriving baby rental market, for these purposes, and that the babies often received a soporific drink....I also give money to musicians, for much the same reason, but of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to have had that training. One of the rising young stars of German violin playing incidentally started her career aged 8 playing on German streets with her Russian parents....