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Begging for a Laugh in New York City

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Begging for a Laugh in New York City

Begging in New York City has been chiseled down into a fine comedic art. Perhaps suiting to the reputation of the place, relatively seldom do you see beggars doing the ordinary begging gig of sitting on a street corner trying to look defunct with an open hand held out.
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Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Brooklyn, New York City- November 7, 2008
Travelogue Travel Photos
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Rather, many of the beggars seemed to have realized that they can make far more money through seeming clever as oppose to beaten down. Perhaps New York City is a place for comedy rather than empathy. To walk through the streets on Manhattan is often to find yourself in the middle of a defacto comedy show . . . All for a little spare change.

“It wasn’t me, man, I’ve been framed!” jests a black man peering through a picture frame that was somehow attached to his face.

If you laugh he asks you for a dollar.

“Do you have a dollar to donate to the united negro pizza fund?” asks another industrious beggar.

“Why lie, I need a beer,” reads the cardboard sign of another man in search of alms.

“I need a dollar so that I can by some beer and then be taken home by two women who will molest me,” reads the sandwich board that covers the front side of a big black man looking to make up some money through making a passerby crack a smile.

There are probably hundreds of such little hustles employed by beggars in this city, but the best one was played on me a few days ago:

I am generally impervious to beggars and begging, and I only spare change in certain circumstances. But sometimes, my senses are warmed and it becomes apparent that asking for spare change can be honed into a respectable profession.

I was walking along St. Marks street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is a pretty trendy part of town that I assume houses a good deal of hustlers. A black guy in a pimped up outfit and fancy sunglasses walks up behind me, gets close, and starts talking.

“Oh shit,” I think to myself, “I have to get rid of this guy.”

It was apparent that he was trying to finagle some money out of me, and I initially did not want to play along. But I looked him in the eye and heard him out anyway.

“If I can make you laugh, will you give me a little change.”

“Go for it,” I said, taking up the challenge.

“Thank you,” he said and went into his first joke:

“If Iraq invaded Turkey from behind, would Greece help?”

I laughed.

The street comedian knew that he won, and set out to rub his victory in my face by continuing to tell me jokes all the way down the street. Some of his jokes were good, some were not, but they all had a tinge of roughness that made me think that they were originals.

“McCain, boxers or briefs?” went another joke.

“Briefs,” I answered.

“Well, that Depends,” countered the comedian.

I laughed. I gave him a dollar and he thanked me as went off to find a new audience.

The joke man probably walked up and down that street all day long doing the same routine on anyone who looked unfamiliar. I must have looked like a sucker, and I was taken in. But it was worth it.

A good beggar provides some sort of social service. In Asia, beggars present the opportunity of earning merit through the giving of alms. In most places, giving to beggars allows one the potential opportunity to – perhaps unavoidably – feel good about themselves for thinking they helped another person.

A beggar who is good at their trade also has the ability to make people know that they will feel bad about themselves for not giving money. In DC a couple of weeks ago, a man in dirty clothes surprised me with a flower. I took it and he asked for a dollar. I tried to give the flower back, but he would not take it and acted sad as he walked away. I could not help myself for feeling like an ass. The beggar did his job.

It is my impression that begging, if done properly, is a job in and of itself. The people who seem to be most successful at this trade are those who can manipulate people’s emotions by making them feel good or bad. The joke man probably works a full day making strangers laugh, the flower man makes you feel like shit for not giving him money, and the beaten, battered, young, old, and missing parts beggars have the power to make you feel pleased with yourself for doing a good deed. The psychology behind begging is interesting, and I suspect that there is a full fledge art in the routines of the professionals. It is my impression that a good beggar has the ability to make far more money than the average worker in many countries. The people who work for alms are not necessarily unemployed.

Related Pages:
Morocco- On Moroccan Touts
Morocco- Travel Tip #5- Not Your Friend

Links to previous travelogue entries:
Ethnography Journalism and Travel Writing
Congo Immigrant Impression of USA
Obama Celebration in Brooklyn


Begging for a Laugh in New York City
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Filed under: New York City, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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