A few weeks ago, I was in New York City to meet someone for drinks, and got on the subway at 34th and 7th to head downtown. I dislike the New York subway for many reasons. It is the only such system in a major Western city to look as if it had been swapped with the metro of a third-world backwater. Pick any otherwise dodgy country on Earth, and chances are the subway of its capital city is a gleaming tube with smooth rolling stock and palatial stations. Not New York. The trains lurch between filthy platforms like winos stumbling to and from tenement doorsteps.
It is also a place in which I am continually confronted with the human condition. Sometimes it takes the form of rudeness; other times, drunkenness. On this particular day, it was poverty. Immediately after the doors closed, a disheveled man entered the car at the far end, battered cap in hand, and made the following announcement to us passengers:
“Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention for one moment, please,” he said loudly. “I don’t want to bother you, but I am a homeless veteran. If you could spare some money, I would greatly appreciate it.”
I could tell it was an announcement he had given many times before. His voice ran through the words with a practiced clarity. There was a mechanical quality to it, like a reluctant student reading aloud from a textbook. He shuffled through the car, holding his balance amid the train’s jolts, extending his red baseball cap for any who might spare him the change from their lattes. No one did. The passengers instead did what all people do in awkward situations: they looked down. Nowadays, the cell phone provides a convenient excuse to do so: the riders of the 7th Avenue local on that beautiful September afternoon busied themselves with their thumb-gymnastics.
The man had asked for money in a public place, only to discover (again, in front of others) that no one would give him any. Is this not a perfect example of shame? By the time he reached me, I had surreptitiously pulled some cash from my pocket, and stuffed a five-dollar bill into his cap as he passed.
I did this as much in anger as in sorrow. Here I was, in the center of New York City, where with each visit one is marinated in “progressivism.” And yet when it came time to put theory into practice, the bleeding hearts could not even muster a farthing. I had felt this before, this same bewilderment. Touring the streets of Vienna one autumn, I spotted a homeless man. I put some money in his cup. The good little European social democrats walking the street that day had given him nothing. What was I to think of all those times I had been told that cosmopolitan Europeans love The People, while Americans are all stingy capitalists?
Standing there in the subway car, I nearly announced my displeasure to the other passengers. But I stayed quiet. I was content to feel content with myself, and I must admit I carried this bit of self-righteousness in my heart for several hours. I felt I had done something good, and perhaps I had. But a few hours later, as I waited to cross the street near Union Square, another homeless man approached me, asking for money. I turned him away brusquely, using the feeble and predictable excuse that I had no money.
Of course, this was a lie. I had money. I could have given him some. I didn’t. What could explain my sudden callousness? It took me another block or two to figure it out: I don’t live or work in an area with homeless people. Confrontations with paupers are not a regular part of my day. Even though I’m a regular visitor to Manhattan (“the city,” to us Long Island natives), its poverty is not something I am forced to see in my normal life. There are, according to some estimates, around 50,000 homeless people in New York City; the number has risen considerably over the last few years. Manhattan is the New York borough afflicted with the most homelessness. If one lives or works there, and thus rides the subways and walks the streets daily, one is bound to encounter panhandling as a matter of routine. The jading effect of this must be quick. After all, it had only taken two such encounters to drive me to cold indifference.
So here I am, standing on the corner of 14th and 4th, questioning my morality. I had already acquired the grudging cynicism of the subway passengers I nearly cursed a few hours earlier. It was one of those moments when you realize you just might be a fraud.
I spent the rest of the day questioning my morality—even my deed on the train. For instance, I confessed to myself that the major reason I had given to the subway pauper was that he was (or said he was) a military veteran. Are veterans inherently more deserving of charity than non-veterans? Do I only give money to homeless vets, rather than to homeless people in general? (The second homeless man was not a vet, and I also had to confess this was a reason I had not given him anything.) If so, does that make me a better or worse person than someone who is at least fair and consistent in refusing to give any alms? And does giving money to the homeless only enable the more or less inevitable boozing and drugging in which most of them participate?
Such dilemmas tinge even the smallest moral decisions of our lives. Each of us likes to imagine that he lives by a discernible set of moral principles. But there are precious few things about which we can be morally certain. It is quite clear, for instance, that torturing and murdering an innocent person is immoral, and so most people, even the majority of repugnant ones, don’t do it. Excepting such extremes, however, moral choices are much more difficult than running down one’s list of “principles,” finding the applicable rule, and applying it with mathematical certainty. Reality always resists your ideal vision of the world and of yourself.