Encounter with a beggar on a train

Ben Wolford

LEICESTER, United Kingdom — I was on a train in the London Underground a couple weeks ago when a man bounded into my car just before it left the station.

He stood at the front of a cluster of passengers as the train sped toward Piccadilly Circus. We all looked at him, and when he started talking, we all looked away.

“I’m sorry to put you all in an uncomfortable position, but if you could just give me your attention for one minute,” he said. He was asking for whatever we could give him, and whether it was money or the leftovers from our dinners, he appreciated it.

I watched him for a few seconds at a time, turning away to look at the floor when it became uncomfortable and when he looked at me. He appeared to be about 30, and his clothes were in bad shape. He told us he was homeless.

He talked the whole way to the next station. And for most of that time, no one made a move to give him anything. I risked quick glances at the other passengers.

A family who spoke German sat across from me. The mother, father, boy and girl all had backpacks, jeans and hiking shoes on. The mother looked at the floor and her daughter’s knee with a pleasant, removed expression, as if determined not to betray any emotions to her children.

My friend was sitting next to me looking not in the direction of our soliloquist, but to a spot about knee-high and to the left. He was expressionless.

One woman was far enough away, on the other side of the German-speaking family, that she could pretend she didn’t notice the man. She craned her head down and away.

The greatest pressure rested on a girl who looked to be college aged. The beggar was standing right over her.

I didn’t give him anything. I had no food, but I did have some coins in my pocket. Usually I give a dollar or two when a guy walks up to me asking for me to spare some change. I didn’t give any to this man, though.

The difference, I suppose, was that this time I was part of a group of people all struggling with their consciences and all very aware of what the other people in the group were doing. If I had dug in my pocket for money, it would have been very conspicuous.

So I looked at the floor and hoped someone else had the guts to give him something. I wondered at what point of desperation one must reach to do this sort of thing. I wondered what gave him the right to put us in this awkward situation. But what kind of society lets some of its members sleep outside? Would it be too conspicuous to let them in?

We were almost to the next stop, and the man was finishing his speech. The college-aged girl gave him the box of leftovers she had in her bag. He thanked her graciously and bolted out the just-opening train door.

When he was sufficiently gone, the little girl asked her mother something in German,

and the mother bent over her daughter and explained something.

I wonder what she said.

Ben Wolford is a junior newspaper journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].