I must’ve left my Spidey-Sense back in Wisconsin, because when I saw and heard an angry African-American man with a large front tooth missing yelling and scolding a group of us to “climb aboard this train”, I obeyed. After all, he was wearing a neon-green safety vest, and he was standing in the open doorway of the MARTA train. He must be the conductor we told ourselves. Being a typical confused tourist, we collectively entrusted him that yes, we did need this particular train to get to our destination, namely, our hotel.
“The Gold Line Goes to Buckhead and the Red Line goes to Noble Springs” or something like that he announced angrily and loudly for us to “get on here” as if we were unruly elementary school children. Being tourists there in Atlanta this last weekend, we appreciated the navigational help, even though he could’ve been a little nicer to us. We got on, and as soon as the train started moving, the joke was on us as this man was not a conductor at all, he was a street-smart panhandler whose M.O. was to round up a bunch of people who didn’t know any better into one train car with his “help” and then ask us all for a “donation”. I felt duped and stupid, and hoped that we indeed were even on the right train at all. (Fortunately we were). We chuckled at his chutzpah and gave him nothing as we saw a sign on the train that said “It is illegal to panhandle on this train.”
A few months ago, on a trip back to Southern California where my father still lives in the house I grew up in, I noticed that the panhandling there had also gotten more creative. I’d just left the airport in my rental car, and I was sitting at a red light waiting to get onto the 405 freeway, glancing at my phone when something caught my eye. A wild-haired, thin young Caucasian man was walking in and out of the traffic lanes while strumming an acoustic guitar. It was quite a sight: he seemed oblivious that he could be hit and killed at any given moment, and snaked through the cars like a carefree snowboarder gliding down a mountainside. It was though he hadn’t a care in the world and was actually onstage performing for his fans. The long light offered me the chance to marvel at his performance while I was terrified at the same time I’d be watching his sudden demise. Yes, we were all stopped, but I knew the light was going to change and I was scared for him because he didn’t appear to be paying attention!! He traipsed over to the median, never having made eye contact with any of the drivers, an open guitar case on the concrete with some coins and dollar bills visible. Wanting to hear his music but savvy enough to know better than to roll down my window, the light turned green finally and I drove off, deep in thought about this young man and who he was, how he got to the state he was in, and did he have any actual talent?
I then wondered, where were the window-washers? Oh how I hated them. You’d be stopped at a stoplight and suddenly seemingly out of nowhere someone would spring out in right in your driver’s side face with Windex and paper towels and they’d be cleaning your windshield. It’s frightening and an invasion of your personal space. You’re trapped in your car at traffic lights and being held hostage by someone who is now demanding money because they did something for you you didn’t ask them to do. The incessant panhandling is one reason I don’t miss living in California.
I will always be impressed though with Hispanics, because they’re too proud to stick out their hands and beg for money. They will always create something, usually of beauty, to sell instead. You will never see a Hispanic person standing under a traffic light median with a sign begging for your money. They will set up a table by a well-trafficked walking path, with a tablecloth, and their wares. You will never see a cardboard sign. I was in Mexico City once and the impoverished children I encountered peddled “chiclets”–chewing gum. I’ve never seen a Hispanic of any age panhandle; they have too much pride and self-respect. It’s admirable and I will often buy a bouquet of flowers from a (usually older) Hispanic woman selling them.
Here in Milwaukee, you’ll see mostly young white men holding signs at traffic lights claiming they are veterans. I hate the feeling I get of being a smug, entitled bitch sitting there in my sports car waiting for the light to fucking hurry up and turn green. I had my years of handing money to beggars and have been lectured that most of them just go and buy drugs. I think, “get a job!” And don’t tell me you don’t think the same thing.
And then, about a half hour after the “non-Conductor experience”, I witnessed something I can’t unsee.
I’d never been to Atlanta, and we were there for a family celebration (my husband’s brother and his wife reside there). The beautiful downtown high-rises and fancy cars I kept seeing mask a dark underside I was soon to experience.
We were travelling via the “MARTA”–or Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority-a rail system that covers 48 miles and has 38 train stations. It serves approximately half a million people a DAY, and Wikipedia tells me that it’s the largest public transportation system in the United States not to receive state funding.
The one-hour ride was extremely unpleasant–the air smelled putrid with the stench of urine. I was immediately nauseated, and it didn’t help that we stood the entire trip, swaying as if we were on a slow roller coaster. I held onto the handrail with my arm because I was afraid to touch it with my bare hand.
The windows were fogging up due to the many souls breathing the confined space and the rainy conditions outside our cell. At every stop I gasped for the fresh air that would blow in as the doors blasted open and shut; people got out, and more came in. Seeing my desperateness to “hurry the fuck up and get there already”, my beloved husband, phone in hand, following the map on his MARTA app, would say, “fourteen more minutes! You can do this!” and counted down at every stop. I cursed him for wanting to save money by not Ubering instead.
At a stop with about a half-hour to go, an alcohol-infused, Beetlejuice looking older woman with bright, drug-store colored hair got on at the same time as a darling African-American little girl about eight years old with Minnie Mouse hair. She was just about the cutest thing I’d ever seen. She had a cute pink Barbie backpack, and I realized it wasn’t a school day. I smiled at her but she didn’t look at me.
She didn’t appear to be looking for a seat; instead, she opened up her empty backpack and to the encouragement of the foul-smelling woman behind me, she walked up and down the aisles begging for money, all the while the Beetlejuice drunk yelled at us, badgering us into feeling guilty enough about our own abundance into giving this darling little girl money.
“She’s just trying to make a living now, go on, a dollar ain’t gonna kill none of ya!”
“She’s doing God’s work!”
“C’mon now, open up your wallets now, a dollar ain’t gonna kill ya!”
“Greed is a sin!”
The crazy-hair drunk was relentless, and she made sure she got one last dig in for those of us who didn’t “reach into our wallets and give” as she exited the train. I was furious. Clearly it was a scam–they got off our car at the very next stop and I’m sure they got on another one in an attempt to use this little girl’s cuteness and innocence to get money for this drunk old witch.
Oh, how I wanted to turn around give that woman a hard shove! With every word she uttered, I fantasized about pushing her off the train at the next stop and grabbing that little girl and whisking her off somewhere far away from that evil witch. It took everything in me not to turn around and scream in her disgusting face,”Eight-year-old little girls shouldn’t be out “trying to earn a living” you drunk piece of shit! SHE’S A LITTLE GIRL! SHE SHOULD BE AT THE PARK ON THE SWINGS NOT BEGGING FOR MONEY FOR YOUR DUMBASS!” I felt my heart pounding in my chest as I searched for the courage to do SOMETHING.
It still upsets me to think about her. No child should ever be used to beg for money for an adult. This was child abuse plain and simple. I thought about how effortlessly this little girl moved about the train, holding her Barbie backpack open for strangers to put dollar bills in. It upsets me greatly knowing that she thinks this is normal behavior. I wonder, how long has this been going on? Since she was old enough to walk?? I’m horrified to know she might be being physically abused as well if she doesn’t collect enough to suit this horrendous woman (who, might I point out, had the nerve to call US “greedy” and “sinful”). I can’t stop thinking about her, and how many more little girls like her are being abused and used to panhandle because who can resist such an innocent little thing like her? This woman was nothing more than a fucking pimp.
But even without the obviousness of being played as a tag-team with that witch, I still wouldn’t have given the little girl any money, because I knew she wouldn’t have ever thought of doing that herself without having been made to by someone else. Even if the adult was out-of-sight, he/she would’ve been there at the end of the train ride, grabbing her backpack to see how much she collected. I was distraught at witnessing this, and feeling so helpless. I wanted to grab her away from that woman and take her to a police station. Why didn’t I? I was frozen. Frozen with shock and fear that this was happening, and of course, worried that if I said or did something, harm would come to me. So now I’m several thousand miles away left with nothing more than frustration and anger.
I want to tell Oprah. I want Oprah to come fix it. I have bystander remorse. Instead of asking myself, “What would Jesus do?” I ask myself, “what would Oprah have done?” Because I KNOW she would have done SOMETHING. But then again, she’s ‘Oprah”. If she’d interceded, she’d have been a hero. The drunk pimp witch would’ve thought she’d seen Jesus in Oprah’s form and repented. I want Oprah can come to Atlanta and ride that fucking Horror Express and find that Beetlejuice woman and whisk that little girl away safe.
I also realized that this is a way of life for many, many mostly African-Americans who live and work in Atlanta. I realized that these working poor don’t have a choice to Uber instead like I do. And if this was how I had to get back and forth to work everyday (I saw a young girl with a McDonald’s cap and work uniform on) I’m both glad that there’s reliable public transportation that’s (hopefully) affordable, but on the other hand, reading that MARTA doesn’t receive state funding, maybe that’s where the solution begins. Cleaner trains and security guards making sure little girls aren’t being pimped. In other words, ACCOUNTABILITY.
With it’s warmer climate, Atlanta suffers like any other big city with its share of panhandlers. I can handle white men pretending to be veterans and homeless hippy musicians begging for money, but not a child. That’s something that shouldn’t be tolerated.
I think I will write a letter to someone so they know this is going on. I may be a few thousand miles away, but I can still effect change.
You deserve so much better, little cute Minnie Mouse girl.