Inner City Survival Guide Pt 1: Dealing With Beggars

The cognitive dissonance engendered by my encounter with the note-carrying, orphaned mute – guilt at not giving her anything versus suspicion of yet another pan-handler in inner-city Sydney – reminded me of the beggar who abused me from the step of a shop on King Street, Newtown. There was a time when you could walk along King Street and be accosted by someone wanting money on every corner. Most of them were polite, albeit shifty if you offered to buy them a meal rather than give them cash – they clearly were not starving, merely gagging for their next dose – but the beggar who accosted me was a young, strapping lad who looked as though he worked out and was in need of his next batch of amphetamine or steroid. He really did specify coinage in his spiel, I really did only have one coin in my pocket, it really was a ten-cent piece and he really did abuse me, proving, much to my amusement, that beggars could indeed be choosers.

This, the first, and to date, only Part of an Inner City Survival Guide that really ought to be written, first appeared in The Chaser and then in Revolver (a publication that evolved into The Brag). In order to make the story palatable, the teller had to become the butt of the joke. It reminds me a bit of (fat) comedian Dave O’Neil’s routine about inner city beggars, which I saw him do at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala in 2001. O’Neil becomes the butt by also becoming the beggar. When he asks for money, he assures people that it’s only for heroin, but they reply “bullshit, you fat bastard, you’re gonna buy food with it!”

Do not call me an arrogant, heartless capitalist bastard for this, but I refuse to pay good money to people who do not earn it. Actually, as I get a little misty-eyed and reluctant to pay good money even to people who do earn it, ‘arrogant, heartless capitalist bastard’ is exactly what you should call me. Naturally, my most loathed nemesis is that species of city dweller who insists on accosting me in public and asking me whether I “have a dollar” or can “spare some change”.

Being a comfortable, middle class Australian, I prefer as a rule to make donations to registered charities and worthy buskers. Those who purport to be members of the former must provide adequate documentation, and afterwards, a receipt. Those who would claim to be the latter must be genuinely entertaining. Therefore, the smelly down-and-outer who once sat on an overturned bucket outside the Hoyts cinema on George Street chanting “buskin’, buskin’, buskin’, buskin’, buskin’”, no doubt a PoMo boho hobo – ie “postmodern bohemian hobo” – deserved a bit of change. The guy who plays air guitar with a plank of wood also got some pocket shrapnel, but only the first time I saw him. He failed to entertain subsequently because he kept playing the same song each time. Although, there was one occasion when a small group of spaced out youths took formation around him and mimed the other instruments; this would have deserved some form of remuneration had I realised that they were playing a Milli Vanilli song.

As for those who refuse to put a little effort into obtaining money from me, I cannot but regard them with acute disdain. They are to the arrogant, heartless capitalist bastard what bathroom germs are to Ajax Super Strength Bathroom Cleanser. I loathe the way they accost everyone at the bus stop or storefront, the way they will pick out anyone who looks even slightly more well-heeled than themselves, in order to approach with outstretched palm and cover story about ‘lost trainfare’ or ‘a telephone call’ or ‘food’. Why don’t these people change their stories a bit – they could easily provide light relief for the well-heeled middle class with tales of their own poverty and misery. I have devised some nearly foolproof methods of evading such pan-handlers. Only ‘nearly’ foolproof, since some fools – the hungry ones in particular – refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.

If you are standing in line at the bus stop quietly reading The Financial Review and some young man, say, is working his way along the cue asking each commuter in turn if they can spare some change, be prepared by following this simple two-point plan.

Firstly, study the beggar’s own demeanour. Secondly, listen to the spiel he employs. Now you are ready. When your turn comes, adopt his waiting-for-the-next-fix swagger and jerky body motion and be in his face before he can be in yours. In that split second before he has the opportunity, ask him the question he would have asked you, in the exact same manner that he would have asked it. “Yeah, like, do you have any spare change?” you’ll enquire. Most of the time, he’ll be too confused to rise to the challenge and will move on to the next person. Occasionally, he may reply “Nup,” in which case you are free to say, “Yeah, like, neither do I, ay?!” and return to the publication guilt-free. The last time I attempted this routine I caught the beggar a beauty: he was so surprised that he ended up handing me the dollar that the woman in front of me had only just given him. Wasn’t I the lucky duck!

On other occasions you will be specifically targeted because of your briefcase, blazer, combed hair or shopping bag with ‘Prada’ emblazoned across it. At times like this it helps if you are scouting the pavement ahead, because the woman who is about to accost you saw you long before you will see her. It is important to be aware of her before she has managed to weave between the pedestrians that separate her from you. Where possible, change your course unexpectedly so that her momentum forces her to pass you; seeing someone behind you to pick on will be easier for her than chasing after you. However, often you will not be aware that she has you in her radar until she is right on top of you. If this is the case, then when she asks, “do you have a dollar” you must adopt your most clipped accent and employ the most flamboyantly rolled R’s that your mouth will allow to utter the following reply: “Of course I have. In fact, I have severrrral hundrrrred thousand!”

You must keep moving briskly while you say this, however, and in an unexpected direction if possible. Although the woman will still be wiping the spittle of your flatulent fricatives out of her eye, a colleague of hers who is working the same stretch may be able to grab you and beat you to a bloody pulp. On the other hand, if you maintain your pace the worst you will have to fear is being called a wanker in public. As you are a wanker with a home to go to, a dinner to eat and a bed to sleep in, this will not worry you in the slightest.

There are times when your beggar will be of the uppity variety. I once had one who asked, “Can you spare a coin, brother?” I replied, “yeah, whatever” and flipped him the sole coin from my hip pocket without breaking my stride. He must have looked down at it with some disdain, for he was soon yelling after me, “F*cken ten cents?! You can f*cken pick that up and keep it; I’m not gonna f*cken bother with ten f*cken cents.” Who was I to discuss fiscal policy with someone so insolvent? Who’d have thought beggars could be choosers?

“You asked for a spare coin and that was the only one in my pocket,” I ranted. “What would you like me to do, write you a cheque? Do you take Amex? Eftpos maybe? Can I put this on Fly Buys?”

It is important to take a tone with such beggars. Otherwise this attitude of turning down charity may threaten their very profession. If there ever comes a time when beggars can be choosers, ordinary people will stop feeling the necessary guilt that forces them to hand money over. And if ordinary people stop feeling guilt – and start acting out of a genuine sense of altruism – arrogant, heartless capitalist bastards like me will stop being able to feel superior in saying ‘no’.

In order to preserve our sense of superiority, we have to save uppity beggars from themselves.

Heartless Bastard Me

I was just doing my Sunday thing, sitting behind the counter in Egg Records’ city store, wishing some customers would come in and buy stuff, when all of a sudden a woman strode purposefully in, parked herself directly in front of the counter, and thrust an open lecture pad in my face.

Damn, I thought, this is going to be one of those nuts who either

a) compiles lists of millions of titles of albums, and stands by while the shop assistant searches from one end of the store to the other in order to confirm, John-Cleese-in-the-Bookshop-Sketch-like, that we have nothing on the list currently in stock,


b) compiles lists of millions of titles of songs, and stands by while the shop assistant searches from one end of the store to the other in order to find out that the few albums that actually feature one, or if you’re lucky, a couple, of songs from the list, are unsuitable because the other songs contained therein already reside somewhere else within the customer's collection and must not be replicated, or just do not appeal to the customer’s taste.

Not that there’s anything wrong with either of these things; technically, searching the store from one end to the other is what I’m paid to do. It’s just that if the customer searched the store from one end to the other, rather than standing back and letting the shop assistant do it, there’d at least be a chance of the customer stumbling onto some other gem worth spending some money on.

Rather than one of the infuriating lists, the woman’s lecture pad bore a scrawled note informing that in addition to being mute and an orphan, she was bereft of a husband and had not seen her daughter for nine years, despite having searched desperately for her, but as her most immediate problem was hunger, could I possibly help her out by handing over ten dollars? When I informed her that I in fact couldn’t, she stalked out in silence, making a dismissive gesture that, strictly speaking, wasn’t obscene, but certainly conveyed the spirit of obscenety.

More obscene, however, was the realisation, the second after she’d left, that I probably should have offered her a couple of bucks in exchange for letting me take a digital photo of her and her note.

Does this make me a bad person?

What about if I scrawled the offer down in a notebook of my own and flashed it at her?

God must certainly think so; I’ve spent the rest of the day knocking whole shelves of stock over.