Give or Take

Given the last two weeks, I wanted to write something about the shooting in East Atlanta Village this week, even though James already covered it once. Not long before the shots were fired, I was a few blocks away, standing in the street talking with police and neighbors about the crime in our neighborhood lately. And about how nervous and how angry we are.

People want things, so they’re coming into our homes and taking them. They’re smashing down our doors. They’re pulling guns. They’re killing and dying in the pursuit of money.

I sat down to write about that, but I keep thinking about something else. A friend of mine told me about a man who stood up on a MARTA train this morning, said he was homeless, and asked the passengers for money. This happens all the time, but tonight I kept picturing it.

“I’m homeless because of a fire at my house,” the man said. He sounded a little rehearsed. “I just need nine more dollars to get set up for the night. I’m trying to get back on my feet.”

People gave him five-dollar and ten-dollar bills. People nudged each other on the train, saying “Excuse me, I just want to get by you for a second so I can give that guy a dollar.” The man made more than his nine needed bucks for sure.

We can read a lot into this moment, if we want to.

We can see a train car full of passengers suckered out of money by a guy with a well aimed sob story. We can picture the train car passengers filing out and being replaced by another car full of Midtown professionals. We can picture the man telling his story again. We can picture him holding the cash out, pinched between two knuckles, and swapping it for a baggie of yellow rocks.

Or we can picture a man standing in a public bathroom, counting his last couple of bucks and coming up nine short of the fee for his motel room. We can picture him reciting his story to himself in the mirror, getting up the nerve to out himself as homeless in front of strangers. We can picture him standing in the strobing red glow of the fire trucks, soot on his face, wearing his pajamas, staring at the soggy ashes he used to live in.

I don’t know if that man’s story was true or not. It may be a mistake to look for too much meaning in these stories. What I know is that I’ve heard two stories about people trying to get money out of strangers this week, and they have different endings.

8 Comments so far

  1. rashid on January 17th, 2009 @ 8:41 am

    This is precisely why I don’t sit around trying to gauge the veracity of these stories. If I have change, I’ll give it to whoever asks. After that, it’s on them to make the best of it and me to wish them the best.

    If they don’t… there is always tomorrow.

  2. silverrubicon on January 17th, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    Ahh, the "fire at my house" guy. I’ve seen him. After he finished his speech, the guy in front of me said he’s heard that speech a few times over the past few weeks.

  3. james hervey (jeherv) on January 17th, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    i agree with rashid. i give change to when i have it. for me their is a religious component to my reaction to this. this song probably sums up how i feel about this the best –

  4. maigh on January 19th, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    First, thank you Will. Thank you for taking us away from our assumptions for a moment…because we all have them and we all *think* we know the story.

    Secondly, you mention the word motel, as if that’s what the money is for. In our fair city, our homeless pay to sleep in shelters. As best I can recall (and forgive me for not digging this up and supplying links), it’s $17 a night for our shelters.

    This leads directly to what SilverRubicon said about someone hearing his speech several times. So, what, when the man collected his funds for warm loging on Monday, you expected that his house would be magically restored on Tuesday? You expected that what he’s scrounged for to feed himself and have somewhere warm to stay would last him a month? No…his home is till gone (by fire or by other means is nearly irrelevant) and he still needs and deserves a warm bed.

  5. Will (atl_will) on January 19th, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

    I didn’t know that. That’s an important piece of information to have when thinking seriously about our city’s homeless population, isn’t it?

  6. maigh on January 20th, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    Yet another dirty little secret of our dirty dirty hot hot.

  7. silverrubicon on January 21st, 2009 @ 6:42 am

    You can do more good for the hobo’s by donating time and money to the organizations that help the hobos rather than the hobos themselves.

  8. oldone on January 23rd, 2009 @ 5:39 am

    I give to the organization to help the group; I give to the individuals for me. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

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