The Pitch

by

11/24/2002

14th st and 6th ave ny ny

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

Blind Accordion Player Guy Who Bumps into Poles on Purpose, Angry Mute Midget, Classical Opera Whistler Dude, Man Who Imitates The Sound of Closing Doors, and Dirty Shoeless Guy Dressed in Rags That Crawls on the Floor.

Each of these beggars (should I say Entrepreneurs?) preys on different emotions. For Blind Accordion, it’s sympathy–he’s driven to play accordion to “try to make a living.” Angry Mute Midget wants people feel to guilty for their proper sets of genes. Man Imitating Doors employs fear; he’s crazy, hence, capable of anything. Anything!

The bums’ predicaments–blind, crazy, destitute, deformed–prevent most from obtaining gainful employment. Some serious affirmative action would be needed to land a combative, mute midget a job. These social outcasts–whether by nature or nurture–must find new ways to make the coin. Some turn to public assistance, a few thieving, and others, of course, the subway. And there’s hardly a better stage to appeal for pity than a subway car’s captive audience.

Passengers are forced to examine (or forcefully ignore) the poverty stricken. How bad off is their situation? Does this smelly/surly/psychotic bum merit a few loose coins? It’s impossible to assist every needy individual, so my charity is divided into several categories, both of which will make me seem like a selfish, bourgeois bastard: pleasure and pity. Pleasure is a busker covering my favorite song when I need music’s kiss to right a wronged day. Pity is who, by comparison makes me feel so well off I’m obligated to proffer change. My change always, always goes to One-Legged Man.

The N-line, which traverses Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, is his usual haunt. He hobbles into the car on crutches, sometimes bumping into things for dramatic effect. One-Legged Man totters for a few seconds and adjusts his battered Tropicana change bin and crutches. When he finds stability he begins, “Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you are all having a wonderful day, but as you can see…” Here he tails off, pausing to sigh and glance at the missing appendage, evoking days when he was maybe somebody’s 100-meter dash champion. “But as you can see,” he resumes, staring passengers in the eye, “I only have one leg. If you could find it in your hearts to spare any change, I’d be grateful.”

After allowing his pitch’s gravity to sink in, One-Legged Man grabs his crutches and starts hobbling down the car at a slug’s pace. He stops every couple of feet to proffer his Tropicana container to subway passengers. Coins are dropped. Crumpled dollar bills are slipped. Food is passed. More people give money than not. Who wants to be the callous bastard unwilling to help the one-legged bum?

The first time I saw One-Legged Man, my heart broke. Oh, unjust world! When One-Legged Man crutched on over to me I dug my hands deep into my pockets. I removed a dollar bill and nickels and quarters and even a piece of chewing gum. I shoved the whole mess into his battered Tropicana jug and smiled.

“God bless you,” he said, beaming beatifically before resuming his hop down the car. I smiled to myself, envisioning my karma points madly tabulating like a pinball machine. This was a New York moment! I’d helped a one-legged man survive! That was a long time ago.

This was when I was still fresh to New York. I did not yet know dozens of one-legged bums hobbled the city streets. I did not realize I’d see this man day after day after day until I could mouth his sales pitch along with him. I did not yet realize how quickly the city numbs your emotions. I did not realize walls needed to be built to keep hearts safe from the sadness of one-legged men begging for change.

Now, pity is another four-letter word. I’m hardened to the incense-scented pleas of Hare Krishnas. I ignore the man at Union Square shouting, “Help me! I have four different kinds of cancer!” I’ve even stopped paying attention to the legless man forever sitting on his stumps in Midtown. A little wall has been built around my heart and wallet. But One-Legged Man is different.

Whenever I see him hobble into the train car I remove my headphones and mouth the sales pitch along with him. My initial pity has turned into some sort of pleasure. He’s giving me what everybody in this city needs–stability and familiarity. One-Legged Man is dependable. Day in, day out, I know he’s crutching down the N-line, begging for change, interminably repeating “Ladies and gentlemen…” like an old song that I’ll gladly pay to hear played again and again.

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