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Monday, July 14, 2008

Just Say No

I’ve worked in downtown Minneapolis for almost five years.

I’m sure that beggars have been in Minneapolis for a long time, but being a rather new member of the downtown working class, I hadn’t been prepared on how to deal with it or the variations on the “beg”.

I didn’t know how to say “no” at first. What? You need change to get home? Well, sure, honey! Everybody wants to go home, don’t they? Until they walk another 15 feet with the same story, collecting the same amount, the same “bus fare”, again and again. Even after I realized that I’d been had, if I were caught unaware and was asked for fifty cents, it just seemed easier to give it away than say no. I gave away a number of bus fares before I finally successfully said what I’d been practicing in my head for weeks. “No.”

One of the impressive things about Minneapolis is its skyway system, a system designed by our ancestors to ensure that women who refuse to wear anything lower than a three-inch heel have a warm way to get from one building to another in the winter. I think it was built by Pa Ingalls, but I might be wrong about that.

The skyways are security-guard swept on a fairly regularly basis and run through the second floors of a number of lovely buildings to a number of other lovely buildings, keeping your skin free of frostbite in the winter and your purse free of being drained of change by beggars in the summer. Even so you may run into a musician playing. I don’t really see that as begging. A handful of change in an open instrument case, a chorus or two on my run to Target over the lunch hour? Some of them play very well. What the heck. I will gladly drop a dollar for a guy playing an instrument well.

But the operative word there is “well”. There’s a man that plays recorder (remember the plastic instrument we played in elementary school?) on the streets and I’m almost tempted to pay him not to play. A trilling, shrieking example of what happens when your belief in yourself surpasses your abilities, this guy spends many days a week, particularly between 7th and 9th on the Nicollet Mall, playing endless variations of Mary Had a Little Lamb; Row, Row, Row Your Boat, and the one that has me racing for something to beat him with: Three Blind Mice. He’s a virtuoso of the trill, of the dramatic flourish. The best thing you can say about his musical abilities? He dresses nicely.

My first encounter with a beggar who actually followed me came shortly after I learned to say no to the ones that just hung out near the bus stop. A man with a furtive face and a smell like a Beef Stroganoff going bad came up to me.

“You got forty bucks?”

“What?”

“You got forty bucks?”

“Did you say forty?”

“Yeah.”

“No.”

“Well, do you have four?”

Bless his soul. While I kind of admired how he went about it – hey! It was only four bucks, marked down from forty! – I turned down the opportunity to give him my money. The word “no” worked again.

That was in the hottest part of summer. The next memorable encounter with a beggar came around Christmas time.

“Say, Ma’am? Ma’am? You’re a Christian woman, ain’t ya?” He ran up to me, trotted next to me as I trudged toward the bus stop.

“No,” I said. “I don’t believe I am.” I picked up my pace.

He picked his pace up as well. “Heh. Heh. Well, could you spare a couple bucks?”

Oh, he shouldn’t have asked me. I’d been working 50 hours a week for over a month. It was dark when I got to work and it was dark when I got home and I’d written a check to a plumber that morning for just under the cost of a good used car. I stopped walking.

“You see that building over there?” I pointed to the building I work in. “I work on the 27th floor. I sell them my precious time by the hour and now you want me to turn around and give it to you. I wrote a check to the plumber this morning for more than I make in a month so that we can go crazy and flush the toilet and I haven’t bought any Christmas presents yet. Now why would I give you money?”

“Heh, heh,” he said. “I like you. You feisty. Can I hug you?”

I smiled at him wryly. “Hug me and I’ll scream.”

“Heh, heh,” he said. And then he was gone, chasing another woman down the street: “Say, Ma’am?! Ma’am? You a Christian woman?”

You know, there are reasons for charity. I give my blood as often as I can, I donate to food shelves, and I give money to an organization that sends musical instruments to our soldiers in Iraq. But giving to random men on the street? I’ve gotten pretty good at saying my new-found word: “No.”

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