The metallic sound of the doorbell filled the house. I hurried to see who was at the door. I opened the chain top lock, turned the deadbolt – an elderly woman living alone can never be too careful. The door slid back, and I looked into the hallway. A man in rags was facing me, about fifty years old. He had big dark eyes, deep wrinkles and a full beard. He was watching me as if I were about to test him and he needed to find the right answers.
“I’m sorry to interrupt. I would like to ask for your assistance. My daughter is sick with a chronic disease, and I need money to buy expensive medications for her. May I ask for a donation? I have a job—I’m not a beggar—but I have no choice. I want to help her.” He held a picture of a young girl and turned it toward me. Although he spoke in a very direct, sensible manner, his tone was slightly groveling as if he were trying to use his voice to express what he wasn’t actually saying: His daughter was suffering, he was desperate and afraid that the disease had no cure, he was forced to turn to strangers and ask for money.
I shook my head to indicate refusal and immediately closed the door, but for some reason, I didn’t lock it. Something about his expression made me feel uncomfortable. Normally, I refuse without giving it any thought. I don’t believe all of these stories, and I’m positive that beggars ask for money for themselves. There are no sick family relatives, only a picture torn out of some magazine. But this time, I was left standing behind the door.
Suddenly, I felt as if the guests at the birthday party were watching me in eager anticipation.
The memory surfaced and felt so real as if I were now sitting in the pleasant back yard. A couple of days ago, on a sunny Saturday, family members and friends gathered to celebrate my cousin’s birthday in her large, roomy yard under a tall oak tree, casting a pleasant shadow. Two tables covered with white table cloths were packed with food: on one table was a huge baking dish with roasted beef, a bowl with baked potatoes, and various salads, and on the other table were fine pastrami and sausages, various kinds of Dutch hard cheeses, dips, and fresh pies with the tempting smell of freshly baked pastries. Her husband opened wine bottles that made a cheerful bursting sound, followed by the perky sparkling of alcohol. A pleasant bustle filled the place as the doorbell rang.
My cousin hastened to open the gate. A blond woman holding the hand of a girl about ten years old stood there. They had a short conversation, after which my cousin went into the house and returned with some money. She was about to hand it to the blond woman when one of the guests, about sixty years old, suddenly screamed, “Don’t give her any money! She should go to work! Find a job! You shouldn’t give them anything. You only make things worse, especially for the girl who will grow up thinking that this is the way to have a good life. Get them out of here! Right now!”
The pleasant hustle died out at once, and everyone watched the man. His yelling made his face blush and sweat. The blond woman looked around embarrassed but didn’t leave, her eyes fixed on the bills in my cousin’s hand. But as the guest kept screaming, she turned around and left with her daughter, and I could see my cousin following her with the money. The man turned to the other guests and explained passionately that one should never give money to beggars but rather make them find jobs. This is especially true for parents because they teach their children the wrong values. In his view, giving money to individuals should be forbidden by law, especially for those capable of working. My cousin, who returned to the birthday party, mumbled apologetically, “It’s not the girl’s fault, is it?” trying to appease the aggressive guest, who was now dining with the others.
After a couple of minutes, the turmoil faded away, but a slightly cold spirit filtered into the cheerful family atmosphere; a transparent film enveloping the guests had been torn, setting loose an inner boundary that was previously very tight. Another cousin sitting next to me said that the loud guest was extremely rich, her husband commented quietly that he may be right but he didn’t know what pity was. A woman sitting on the other side added in a righteous tone that it was very impolite of him to yell like this at a birthday party, he should have refrained from screaming, and a young man said he didn’t understand what the fuss was all about; no one was forcing him to give money. A slab of reality that was supposed to be left out of the cheerful backyard permeated the party, awakening turbulences everyone was eager to conceal.
I sat there deep in thought, watching my cousin apologize awkwardly—trying not to annoy anyone—and the guests that who overlooked her embarrassment, obvious and shameful.
Suddenly, through a hidden slot the memory of the event in the café crept out and materialized.
A couple of months ago, we sat together in the morning in a café—a couple of elderly ladies who meet once a week. On the table were beautiful decorated cups with coffee and tea, various pastries, shining a spreading the odor of fresh dough recently removed from the oven at the back of the store. At the center of the table was a green glass water pitcher and a small vase with a tiny bouquet. Napkins with a beautiful pattern of squares and circles were placed in an elegant ceramic napkin holder. The waitress kept asking us with a forced smile if we needed anything else.
Sometimes our conversation resembles a random collection of words picked from a certain page in a book; they must be connected somehow, but the logic isn’t clear. One woman emits a couple of sentences about how depressing politics is at the moment, her friend comments that her daughter-in-law works in a government office, a third one declares that her grandson is so gifted that he won a prize at school, another woman murmurs that the prices of food have gone up lately. And though the words seem detached and lacking a common context, still the conversation progresses. Every sentence is met with some response, the pastries and drinks are gradually consumed – a dialogue between people doesn’t always fall into a rational systematic pattern. The words echoing around the table illustrate that deep communication can take place even if the proper words haven’t been found.
But on that particular day, in early fall, a beggar slowly approached our table. He was an elderly man, around our age, with disheveled hair and a small humpback, wearing an oversized coat and worn out shoes. He walked between the tables, saying nothing, only stretching a rough, scratched hand, asking for money. Most people ignored him; one woman gave him a coin. He paced toward us, taking very small steps. I’m not sure why, but I was anxious as he approached. He didn’t look aggressive or violent but rather submissive, but I found him frightening; eyes looking around purposefully, every person in a vehicle, a possible source of some money. He seemed to see nothing but rather only followed certain body movements that normally precede a hand stretching toward a purse.
As he stood by our table, one woman whispered, “I wish he would go away. He is so filthy.” Another added, “Be careful; he might be ill.” He looked at us and then hunched his back more to make his humpback protrude even further. He then stretched a concave hand without saying a word.
Half of a cinnamon croissant glittering in the sun, freshly made orange juice producing an orange glare, a chunk of tomato and cheese pie looking like a red-white mosaic, fruit salad leftovers resembling yellow white pearls—the beggar stared at the food and said nothing. “Poor thing,” one woman said quietly. “Maybe we should give him something?” as her friends sighed. But then, one friend stood up in an exhibited manner, grabbed her wallet, and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. Her face adopted a vain expression. The brows lifted and drew apart, the nostrils widened, and the mouth contracted in reproach. With a loud voice, she began to explain that everyone should have some pity, it is simply impossible to ignore the suffering of others. After all, we are all human beings. A person should be sensitive to other people’s wants, give some of what he or she has, and added more and more about the importance of having an open heart. At the end of this short speech, she placed the twenty-dollar bill in the dirty, scratched hand of the beggar in a demonstrative manner.
He watched her indifferently, immediately stuck the bill in his pocket—but with a sharp, unexpected move, he snatched the half-eaten croissant from the table and hurried away, almost running, hearing loud cries of panic and a shout of “I wish I hadn’t given him the money.”
I decided to look at the peephole to see if the beggar was still there. I saw nothing, but I could feel a breath on the other side of the door, like an animal sensing another animal. I told myself that he must have already left, I’ve been standing behind the door for a couple of minutes, immersed in my memories. I stopped my breath, stood on my tip toes and opened the door very slowly so that it wouldn’t make even the slightest squeak.
He was standing there in the hallway, his hands limp next to his body, his head bent down. As he saw the door move, he lifted his head and looked at me with a slightly mocking smile. “No rush, ma’am. I’ll be waiting here,” he said in a hoarse voice, attempting to blur the touch of laughter that filtered into his voice; scoffing me for not locking the door and ignoring him, an irrefutable manifestation of weakness.
I closed the door at once and decided to give him a couple of coins so that he would leave. I began to look for some change—in a tiny bowl in the kitchen, in my handbag, in the bedroom, and in the living room. However, it seemed that all of the coins had disappeared. I walked in haste, as if a catastrophe was about to take place and I was trying to stop it.
Suddenly, an inner crust collapsed, unearthing the memory of the central bus station.
A bubble of childhood that survived for so many years, voices and sights that seem to have sunk and disappeared but suddenly, unexpectedly, it turns out that they maintained their vitality and are still full of colors and odors. As a child, I sometimes traveled with my mother out of town. At the central bus station, we always passed by a beggar next to the entrance to the station. The first time I saw him I clang to my mother, and she looked at me surprised. A man was sitting on a brown cardboard on the floor, with both his legs amputated to the knees, and his filthy pants were tied under the knees. His body leaned against the wall. He looked at the passers-by, muttering unclear words interrupted by heavy coughing. In front of him was a small box with a couple of coins.
I wanted to stop and look at him, and escape. His forehead had vertical wrinkles, his eyes were wide open, his mouth had almost no lips, his beard was part long and part short, his shirt dark and stained. He had huge, rough hands and black nails. His amputated legs were placed before him as if they weren’t part of his body. Mom, let’s give him some money he is so miserable; don’t worry, people help him; but how? He can’t walk; there are people who assist beggars like him; why don’t we give him a coin? he can’t get up; I’m sure he has crutches, sometime he isn’t sitting here; please, mom, let’s give him something, he is so poor; there are plenty of poor people, we can’t give them all money; so let’s give only him; he could be dangerous and aggressive to people who give him money; Why?; These beggars are sick. A normal person wouldn’t sit on the floor and ask for money, even if he was handicapped; he is so miserable, even if he’s crazy. How can he attack me if he doesn’t have legs?
I could feel the smell of the central bus station. Busses rush into the station, unloading passengers on the docks and disappearing, people take quick steps, rush to their destination. Escalators ascend and descend, the elevator moves up and down, a board with letters and numbers constantly changes. The announcer says a certain bus is about to leave any minute, fast food stands offer food without losing time. A crowd that is on its way to another place, in hurry to leave the station—and the beggar is implanted in place on the brown cardboard, watching legs pass by quickly, and only rarely does anyone toss a coin at him, which makes a metallic sound as it hits the rusty iron box.
The childhood memory that suddenly fully materialized almost made me faint. In a moment, I would have dropped on the bed and lain motionless, but the thought of the beggar standing outside of the door was overwhelming. Suddenly, I realized that he if walked away, I would be relieved. A hidden weight I’ve been carrying for years would disappear, leaving a trail of fresh air. I went quickly to the kitchen and opened my purse, took out a twenty-dollar bill, and ran to the front door.
As I opened the door, the beggar smiled at me with clear contempt. His dark eyes, which now seemed devious, watched me almost amused. In a moment, he would have burst out laughing at the frightened old lady who couldn’t eliminate the need to give him some change. But I felt my heart pounding and only wanted him to go away. I threw the bill at him. I didn’t even wait to see if he managed to catch it or if he had to bend down to the floor to pick it up. I slammed the door and pressed my body against it as if an evil spirit were trying to break into my home and I was pushing it away as hard as I possibly could.
Cover image: Alphonse Legros, Seated Beggar. Courtesy of the National Gallery