The Diaries of Arnon Grunberg (7)

A black man, in a faded black t-shirt and black jeans, shuffles toward me as I walk along the pavement. In his right he holds a makeshift carton box, folded in such a way, that the top covers his chest. His face prostrates behind the top of the carton. The top of his head is bald, the sides trimmed short, but long enough to look fuzzy-wuzzy.

As I approach him, I see him mumbling something, but with such an attempted kind voice, that he speaks too softly for me to hear what he’s saying from the five meters distance from which we still stand. I approach him swiftly.

“Excuse me?” with the typical willingness of the white man’s voice when he speaks to a poor black man, a tone too friendly to be real, but friendly enough to cover the historic guilt with which each white man is loaded without any personal wrong doing. The black man undoubtfully is aware of this overweight he holds, certainly, the man in front of me is.

His left hand slides up toward his throat’s Adam’s apple, and as if trying to grasp it, his fingers and thumb form a stiff grip. He waives his grip gently along his throat, bends his head slightly sidewards, like a dog begging, and repeats his murmur.

Standing beside him, I now see two large slices of pizza laying on the folded carton in his right hand.

“Sir, could you spare a dollar for a soda, my throat is so dry,” he begs while his left hand gesticulates still up and down along his throat.

I apologize, but I am unsure if I apologize for not wanting to help him, or if I seek an excuse to mankind for the type of beggar his character has become. I remember the other black males who beg in my neighborhood. They cultivate a culture of poverty because they are compelled to. They see a white person and their whole body shakes and their veins are filled with adrenaline to ask for a quarter, unable to resist until their breath and mouth forms those words of relief that sooths their minds. Only then are they calm again.

The black man in the wheelchair near the phone booth at Court Street. He has no special need to beg, it is just an extra income he generates. He sits and talks to his buddies, and careless of the passers-by he shakes his paper cup with some pocket money to rattle the passers’ attention. Or like the fat black man sitting near the Duane Reader on the brick wall, when the sun shines, he sits and enjoys the beams of light, and as he strikes a friendly eye, his compulsion to ask for a free quarter takes a hold of him. Or like the slender moustached black standing at the Citi bank’s entrance.

This is what they have become to regard as work. They get up in the morning, have a donut, a coffee and go to work. And like others, they get dressed for the occasion, they say goodbey to their wives, and there they stand. One works the corner of Court and Montague Street, the other holds office at the Citi bank, another is off to meet his buddies at the next corner, and while his buddies sell out-of-sale books, umbrellas, or sun-glasses, they shake their paper-cup. There is no lack of pride, no lost self-esteem, no dependency, this is how they make money.

And truely, who bends deeper for a buck? The white man locked up in his 3 by 4 cubicle, chained by a mortgage and the demands of a middle-class life, or the poor black man, who needs to answer no boss’ call than his inner compulsion to beg and hustle for every free quarter, and whose presence is disturbed by none, but the guilty eyes of the bourgeois sensitivity?

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