I have seen this woman a dozen times or more. She begs for money on the Washington D.C. Metro trains.
She is young, maybe in her late twenties. The blue blanket that covers her is actually covering a baby, probably less than a year old.
She gets on a train with the baby strapped on. The baby usually is asleep or otherwise calm, but you can see it’s face as the woman approaches. She holds a piece of cardboard that has written on it something about needing money for diapers and food. She speaks in a soft, hesitant voice to get people’s attention. And it seems that she does not speak English very well.
I have given her a few dollars on several occasions. Often she takes me by surprise, quietly approaching until she is suddenly there. I feel caught, and would feel guilty saying no.
The fact that I have seen her several times tells me a few things. One is that her situation is not a temporary one. It’s not that she needs a few dollars to get by until circumstances improve. Two is that she has a system. She very carefully starts at one end of the train, moving through the car and collecting all that the riders are willing to give. Then the train stops at a station and she moves to the next car to start again. And she always has her baby.
But what’s very interesting is that I have been approached on the Metro train by a different woman using the very same technique. The baby, the moving from car to car, the cardboard sign, everything.
So now I’m wondering if this is organized. Perhaps there is someone like Fagin in Oliver Twist who is running a scheme with young mothers. The ones I have encountered seem to be of the same ethnicity, maybe Eastern European. Maybe they all live in a group home, go out and beg all day, then pool their money at night.
Is that kind of thing still done? It feels so 19th century but maybe it’s very effective, too effective to give up.
Lastly, it is not very clear from the picture, but as she is sitting there, the woman is holding something up to her ear. It is a smart phone. She is making a phone call.