I don't and won't put money in the paper cup of the mendicant sitting on a milk crate outside a Dunkin' Donuts in Downtown Crossing. He's not noticeably smelly or particularly rude. However, he's a lot of years too late.
In college days, there was a beggar in front of the Prudential Center who often got my attention and change. He had a simple routine, but it was fine theater, excellently timed. Unlike others, he'd show money. Opening his fist, he pushed coins around his palm, looked imploringly and pointed to the adjacent snack shop. "I need just 55 cents to get a ham sandwich there," he'd say. From his look, I am pretty sure his lunch was from a green bottle, but I had been amused and paid up almost every time.
Then in my early 20s, I fulfilled my high-school promise to myself and moved to Manhattan. I took over an apartment of a friend of a friend who needed to sublet it for a year.
East Third Street had its own set of subcultures. I was directly across the street from the Hell's Angels (a different story...later) and a couple of blocks from the main men's shelter on the Bowery.
So if I headed in one direction, single and paired bums aggressively begged me for spare change, a quarter, a dollar, help. I started out giving the most intense of them money, then fewer, then none. It did not take long to put out a force shield.
Then, I began hearing a peculiar question repeatedly. In a laughably small A&P, in a bodega, in a Russian bakery and in the closest liquor store, a clerk would stop suddenly my transaction to ask, "Do you have a brother around here?"
Finally, I saw him. Five mornings, I left the grit of the Lower East Side for my temp job at the Museum of Modern Art. I was a lackey helping bring the Italian Design Show (another different story...also later) to town. Unlike the chrome hogs sputtering and roaring across the block every night, the objects at MOMA were, well, art. From ashtrays to typewriters to coffee mugs, we used objects that were part of the design collection. There was a delicacy to such indulgence in beauty.
This Monday, I was almost to the subway when I looked down at yet another bum on yet another milk crate. We simultaneously stared at each other. From the blond hair to the long jaw to the reddish moustache, we were identical. We were the same age and size and were twins.
This was my illusory brother.
We remarked on it all. He too had been asked about his brother in the neighborhood. At least we had one other difference; our names were nothing alike.
I gave him money that morning and every time I saw him. In exchange, he began to offer tidbits of a childhood in New Jersey, a middle-class family, an engineering degree from Rutgers, no jobs available in the recession, and a pioneering drive, but East instead of to the Plains, to experience raw life.
We saw each other for months, and then never again. I like to assume that he did not die on the street of violence or acute alcoholism. Rather, I saw him returning to his family, tossing the smelly clothes and starting his straight career.
The lyrics to Phil Ochs' "There But For Fortune have had a particular intensity from the first time I saw my twin.