The Beggars' Trade

February 24th, 2021 by Diana Coman

~ This is the very loose English version of an article of mine written in 2011. ~

I don't give money to beggars and I never did, quite deliberately. Nevertheless, some years ago, I gave all the pile of coins in my purse to a woman in the street, someone I had never seen before nor since. I still recall the way it happened and the few words she repeatedly said to and even after me, as if hoping for an answer that I did not have and therefore could not give her at the time: "forgive me, please forgive me!"

She hadn't begged nor even asked for anything, not directly, not with any spoken words, nor with any pleading look, nor even trying at all to meet anyone's eyes. I had observed her idly for a while, as I was waiting for a friend of mine, but she had simply stood there, seemingly just as cold and miserable -neither more, nor less- as all the other people that were waiting at that stop on one of the main streets of Bucharest, one early spring1. She had moved about a bit as if to warm up and then, all of a sudden, she had shouted "I'm hungry!" - a single, unrepeated and unexpectedly loud shout that had seemingly burst out of her and that carried far through the crisp air, alongside the overpowering smell of freshly made, hot pretzels and donuts from the corner shop. No other words were spoken, no heads were turned at all, some even got distinctly more rigid. A few backs sagged a little more, a little further, that was all.

I observed her a little longer from where I was at the entry to a park, some distance away, as she continued to stand where she had been, still looking at the pavement, still seeming otherwise from a distance quite similar to everyone else around her. After a while, I walked over to her, caught her eye and gave her all the coins I had on me but as I fished them out of my purse, I was paying more attention to the odd bits and pieces that got initially caught in the pile than to anything else. She started apologizing as I was piling the coins in her cupped hands and whether she heard or not whatever answer I made, she continued asking me for forgiveness even as I said good bye and then turned and left.

The beggars I had seen before (and even since) certainly have a wide range of responses at the ready - they might give thanks of any and all description, they might shrug it all off with indifference or they might even be as insolent as possible at times, but they hardly ever apologize and they certainly don't ask for anyone's forgiveness. After all, why would they apologize and over what exactly? And why would they ask for forgiveness when they are in the street precisely to sell what is essentially a form - if empty form and nothing else - of forgiveness? Like all other street sellers, beggars simply advertise their merchandise and go each day to their place in the street to find their clients - those who give them alms.

Despite its frowned upon status and general branding of all sorts, begging is just a trade and even a very popular (if meanwhile increasingly more refined and even institutionalized) trade indeed, as the merchandise on offer is in really great demand. This demand though is neither the merit nor the fault of the beggars themselves but merely a reflection of the buyers' own desperate need. While many things may be said about beggars' advertisement tactics and even about their choice of trade itself, they hardly need to create any demand: they are merely constant and reliable providers of the cheapest sort of satisfaction for which there is already a huge appetite otherwise. Like all very cheap things, the provided satisfaction is, of course, worth very little indeed but this poor value as well as the resulting popularity of the trade itself is not the fault of the seller - it's all the buyers' choice and doing, at every step of the way.

The beggars' merchandise is indeed very cheap because it's also entirely illusory - empty feelings are provided, packed as required by ever more demanding buyers within stories made for purpose and then acted for days and days on end, directly in the street. But focusing on the story or even on its fake nature is missing the point entirely. Although central in a way to begging2, the story that each beggar tells is mere packaging and presentation, essentially branding - the only available way to stand out from the competition that is otherwise selling the exact same thing, not different in any way at all, neither better nor worse, neither bigger nor smaller, neither more nor less valuable, just precisely and exactly the same. After all, how could exactly one nothing be different from another nothing? For the price of the alms given, the givers take for themselves as much feeling of kindness and of moral superiority as they literally want to, obtaining it all at a heavily discounted price and overall negligible cost.

What is being sold thus is a prepackaged, mass-produced "good deed", a sort of extremely cheap and therefore easily affordable ersatz of the significantly more expensive deeds of any actual charity. Beggars are essentially modern indulgence sellers -there is significant guilt at the root of the demand for illusions instead of reality- and as such, they are quite correct to show disdain for alms that are too small or of the wrong sort: if people didn't value that much their own laziness and those easily obtained feelings of kindness and superiority, they wouldn't be looking to buy those illusions in the first place and would go instead through the much more significant trouble of living with as much or as little charitable acts as they might be able to do on their own.

The trouble with good deeds that one doesn't just buy at the street's corner is that they tend to require significantly more effort than giving away some money and when they also require actual involvement, they can easily be frightening to *do*: who knows what one might find about oneself in the process and what deeply held and never before questioned beliefs might be exposed to the unforgiving reality! Much better thus to buy simply from beggars the illusion of one's own kindness - it's tamer and safer not to mention way, way cheaper, too! Beggars' trade exists after all simply as a visible sign of people's laziness and desire for a cheap and cosy, overall undemanding life. So beggars will play their part pretending to need help and setting up the stage with the story, all the required props and even a steady flow of spectators as they pass through the street, while buyers will pay for the privilege to play the coveted role of benefactor and sit on the cardboard throne erected for this very purpose. There's nothing wrong with it either - play the role you want to play, only don't complain at the end that your throne is just a soggy piece of cardboard.

Beggars sell illusions, indeed. Because the reality is too expensive and it doesn't sell well at all, either.

  1. There's a specific type of misery linked to waiting for a long time in the cold for a bus that is routinely late and even more routinely packed, going as well, in most cases, to a place that is equally cold and perhaps only slightly less packed. 

  2. There's a Romanian film of some documentary value on this topic among others: Filantropica, by Nae Caranfil, 2002. There's a review of it on Trilema, too. 

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3 Responses to “The Beggars' Trade”

  1. Mircea Popescu says:

    They're all beggars, and they're all victims ; and victimized by the same thing. The trite approach is to say that "the bourgeoisie" (ie, a demographic subgroup) or perhaps "the capital" (ie, a meta-manifestation of a social class) is victimizing the poor proletarians, forcing them to cater to its insane demands and expectations. Frankly I'm unpersuaded, if for no other reason then at least because the process seems to accelerate with the dissolution of the respective demographic subgroup and the destruction of capital.

    Honestly I suspect the Greek model's the better, if not fitting very well in most locales still summing much closer to a fit over the whole space : man is victimized by the gods, plain and simple, perpetually and unyieldingly.

  2. Diana Coman says:

    On one hand, I think I struggle with what "victim" even means really (and looking back, it's not even a new struggle) before getting to struggle I guess even further with the Greek model. On the other hand, models that require such a lofty view as to end up fitting anything at all might be perhaps both the best we have and the loftiest one can conceive but not exactly saying much - esp the "by the gods" part sounds more like the last resort since it fits over the whole space and by design ~anything, after all, how could it not fit.

  3. Right ?

    Anyway, tragedy as the mode of human existence, it's not a novel idea.

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