Street entertainers and their poor relation, beggars, are a feature of cities all over the world. Glasgow, as we’ve seen, might just be the king of the busking cities because it is so pedestrianized, but wherever you go, there are down-and-outs and chancers doing what they can to get the money for a meal and a drink.
In Caracas, Venezuela, they have quite a traffic problem, with junctions jammed at all hours of the day and traffic lights that count down the seconds until it’s your turn to go.
For the entertainers, this shows that they’ve got , say, 25 seconds to impress you and accept your generous donation, but with engine noise and honking of horns, giving you a few bars of American Pie isn’t going to have much effect.
What does work is juggling, and perhaps the early exponents of this on the streets of the city just did it with ordinary juggling clubs, but now you’re more likely to find people doing it with burning sticks. It certainly grabs the attention, especially at twilight, and even if some exponents are not particularly good at it – you see them drop one occasionally – it is something most of us would never attempt, so it is tempting to give them a few of the almost-worthless local coins just for having the enterprise to do it.
At least it gives the observer something to enjoy, whereas with the humble beggar all we experience is pity, guilt and embarrassment.
For many of us, I think it’s not that we don’t want to give money to someone less fortunate. It’s just that we may not have the right amount of cash, or we are more than happy to give to charity but don’t like to be pressured. There is also the school of thought that if you give one day, you will be seen as a soft touch for the rest of your stay. And there are also those who say don’t give, they’ll only spend it on drugs (a terribly sweeping judgement in my opinion).
Can one person give equally to everyone who asks him? In Vancouver once, in the middle of winter I gave money to a man who looked quite respectable and perhaps was new to the life. It was so cold in that area, down by the water, that you really did want to help him to get off the street into somewhere warm. I gave once but ran into him again on the way back from the restaurant, whereupon he tried his luck again. Then he recognized me, apologized and only sheepishly accepted my second instalment.
Holiday destinations don’t have the same tearjerking effect. During one short break in a small town on the Algarve in Portugal, to my shame I avoided eye contact with the local beggar for five days and on my last day, I actually altered my route to the beach to avoid him altogether. But guess what – he had changed his routine that very day too and there he was in the middle of the alley. The game was up and I handed him all my change.
The path to becoming a vagrant is a tragic one to behold, as I have done twice. First there was a quite well-known figure, a school dentist, who deteriorated from happy drinker to heavy drinker and on down the staircase to unemployed, unemployable and a life hanging around the bus terminus.
Then there was a man I didn’t know at all, in London, who just degenerated from apparent stability and normality to being dirty, unwashed and clearly sleeping rough.
Usually we meet them after the fall from grace and don’t know the story behind the smell. Such was the case with a middle-aged woman I befriended in a pleasant part of Caracas.
Having caught the early bus into the city to go about my business teaching English, I often had half an hour to spare before my first class with employees at the Ministry of Finance. Ten minutes’ walk away was Plaza Bolivar, a partially shaded area of smooth stone benches around the edges with lawns and flower beds and a big statue of the national hero, Simon Bolivar, on a rearing horse.
A porridge vendor would cycle through, loudly proclaiming that what he was selling (they like it thin like a drink in those parts) was nice and hot.
A gardener would appear and lift up a grassy flap in the lawn, disappear below ground, and a fountain would stop or start at his instigation. Men would sit around, reading newspapers and chatting.
And there was this woman, always wearing the same drab dress and tatty sandals. She spoke no English and I spoke little Spanish, but she seemed to feel comfortable with me and would sit and mutter through her toothless mouth while I prepared my theme for the day. She didn’t ask for money, although she was apparently destitute, and eventually she would wander off.
She could have been a rich eccentric for all I know. Or perhaps she was just hanging on to some shred of self-respect.