Organized Begging

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.

What Does Democracy Look Like? Ride the Subway.

I ride the Washington, D.C., Metro trains essentially every business day of the year and have found it to be, quite possibly, the most democratic place in the country.

I have been riding for over two decades, and I have seen much that goes on, or is likely to happen, on this subway system. Like any public transportation, it has both good features and bad. But the one thing that is most remarkable is that it even happens at all.

The Metro carries between 600,000 and 700,000 passengers every day on average, and there are all kinds of riders. There are the rich and the poor. There are blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. There are women and men. There are managers and laborers. There are the young and the old, the athletic and the disabled. There are Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews.

All of us each day enter crowded train cars together. We sit or stand next to each other. We sometimes talk but often are silent, minding our own business.

This is normal. But certain types of people would have us believe that this is simply impossible, that there is no way a stable civil society could be maintained that is made up of such diversity. That the only outcome from putting a Muslim and a Jew, or white people and black people–or whichever antagonistic combination you prefer–in a confined space is bloodshed.

Here is the remarkable thing about the Metro: nobody is forcing themselves upon someone else. Nobody is claiming their opinions are correct and that everyone else is wrong. Nobody is trying to kill one another, or injure, or harass. Yes, there are some beggars and hustlers, some thieves and the occasional person who is either drunk, stoned, or in serious need of a shower. But mostly, every day of the year, we get along.

Security is gained by numbers. Everyone behaves better when there are numerous witnesses. Why? Because we all more or less know how to behave in public–I truly believe this. And not just large numbers of people who look like you or believe as you do. Diversity is its own strength. It is only when we are alone or in a crew of too many like-minded individuals that the trouble begins.

As Metro riders, we accept that each person is on the train for a reason and has somewhere they need to be. Deep down, despite our differences, we accept each other’s essential humanity, that everyone has a mother and/or father who is missing them, or has a spouse they kissed goodbye that morning, or children they are looking forward to seeing when they get home. They have work to do, people to meet. lives to live.

In this time when America feels more divided then I can remember in my lifetime, I take comfort from my rides on the Metro. I take comfort from our demonstrated ability to not give in to our negativity, think outside ourselves, and get along. It is an example of an America that finds strength in diversity. It is an example of what America can aim to be in the coming new year.