By Bobby Calise
Beggars, apparently, can be choosers.
That’s the lesson I learned this past Saturday on the 4 train headed towards Brooklyn. When I boarded the packed subway car, a homeless man was working the crowd of passengers, asking for monetary donations to help propel himself away from his current circumstances and toward greener pastures. By the time I had gotten on, he had come to the end of his spiel and was in the process of collecting donations. He seemed to linger a little too long for one passenger, though, a young blonde woman who had given him 50 cents a few seconds earlier. She muttered something to the effect of, “OK enough already,” apparently hoping the homeless man would take the hint and move on.
The homeless man instead took exception to the woman’s comment and launched into a ten-minute diatribe, first towards the young blonde woman and then towards society in general (to his credit, he kept his language clean). He talked about his status as a veteran of three different wars and his efforts to defend the freedoms that people, like the young blonde woman, took for granted. At one point another rider even chimed in to support him: “Some people don’t know what it’s like to be homeless!”
By this time I had begun to tune him out and keep my head down for fear of being engaged in the debate. But then the homeless man did something that got my attention, something I had never seen before: he turned to the young blonde woman, reached over to her, and gave the 50 cents back to her. Huh?!?! This particular homeless man was poor enough to ride the subway asking passengers for donations, but not so poor that he’d accept money from a patron whose attitude he didn’t like. I was stunned.
Continuing his monologue as my fellow passengers and I counted the stops until we could escape the awkwardness, the homeless man (who is black) told a story of his encounter with another man who also works the trains (who is white). The other man claimed to have made $88 on a one-way trip on the Lexington Line, just by telling his own story and collecting donations. So the homeless man, making use of the other man’s tip, did the same in the hopes of a similar fortune. He rode the Lex Line one way, telling his story and collecting donations. According to his tally, he earned just $6. He not so subtly attributed these figures to an element of racial bias among the subway riders of New York City. And with that, I reached my destination and got off the train.
Homelessness in New York City, or anywhere for that matter, isn’t funny. It’s heart-breaking. But to me the saddest part of this particular man’s story wasn’t that he was a victim of racism or rudeness or any number of bad breaks that led to poverty. It was that he was a bad businessman and didn’t realize it. He turned a customer (the blonde woman) into his biggest detractor and actually lost money on the transaction. And through his argument with her, he poisoned the pool of other potential customers (a subway car full of passengers who just wanted him to go away). Finally, he managed to waste his own valuable time deriding an individual dissatisfied customer rather embracing a “The Customer is Always Right” attitude, ignoring her rude comment, and moving on to the next car to work his way towards his $88 goal.
I can’t possibly fathom what it’s like to be in the homeless man’s position, and for that I feel very blessed. If his rant was simply a momentary setback on an otherwise successful attempt at reaching his goal of getting off the streets then I applaud him for his hustle. But what I do know is that Chase won’t turn away a customer’s money even if that customer is rude to one of its tellers. Starbucks will still make your caramel macchiato for you, even if you’re a jerk. And JetBlue doesn’t ask you a series of questions about how nice you are as a person before they let you buy a ticket. The customer is always right, and $88 is always more than $6.