Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Difference of a Dollar

On a recent trip to Washington DC I had to pause in front of a Metro card machine to decipher its instructions.  As I pulled several bills from my wallet I became aware of a soft-spoken man standing a few feet away, quietly intoning “45 cents, folks.  That’s all I need.  It’s not a hand out, I just need to get home and I don’t have the right change.  Spare 45 cents?  Anybody?  Please?...”

Having lived in most of the major cities on the eastern seaboard, I was not buying his act.  I had seen too many hustlers and homeless people looking for an easy mark, and this guy was perfectly positioned at a spot where out-of-towners are most likely to stand for a few minutes with money in their hands figuring out, like I was, how to buy a Metro card.

Perhaps a dozen people were in the vicinity, all doing what I was doing, and as we all finished our business with the machines, the man suddenly squatted next to his bag, facing away from us, lifted both hands up next to his ears and noiselessly started to shake them.  He realized that none of us were going to help him.  Still shaking, and in his own private world of humiliation and embarrassment, he emitted a quiet keening sound as I, with a fresh Metro card safely in hand, turned from the machine to head through the turnstiles.

In that moment I realized that whatever else might be going on, this man really was desperate.  He needed 45 cents.  His life had been reduced to this almost insignificant equation and the look on his face as he stared at his bag, shaking with fear, anger, and frustration pierced my detachment like nothing has in a long time.

The fairy tale ending to this story is, having given him some money, I proceed onto the Metro feeling virtuous and the guy purchases his ticket and makes it home in time for his daughter’s birthday party. 

Instead, I gave the guy a dollar, received his heartfelt thanks, got onto the Metro and experienced a tidal wave of anger.  I felt that the entire encounter was an allegory for the arts in this country.  The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway looking for legitimacy and support from his fellow travelers.  The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway with a bag full of ideas, of projects, of potential, all waiting to be realized.  The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway in need of a few pennies more to help reach a place that other travelers will only dream of.  The arts sector is the unknown man kneeling in the subway shaking with sorrow, fear, and a little rage at the indifference of society.

I shared this story with a friend.  He pointed out that the real lesson to be drawn from this encounter was that, in reality, someone (me) had intervened and bailed the guy out—a perfect lesson in current political theory.  Let things get desperate enough and the private sector will step up and save the day.

Except, I argued back, that in this case, it wasn’t the “private sector” that stepped up and saved the day; it was me—a public servant.  Moreover, it was a public servant who watched as literally dozens of “private sector citizens” walked past and ignored the man’s pleas; who took the extra moment to process the look on the man’s face; who gauged that one man’s private torment, internalized it, and who finally reached into his wallet to give the man a dollar.  Did I feel virtuous?  Heck no.

What’s going to happen to the next person who needs 45 cents if the public sector isn’t around?  How will she fare? And the person after her…?  And the one after him…?

We are going in the wrong direction. The public sector is being made out to be the enemy of progress. And the need for the arts and humanities (not to mention human services, medical care, and social security) is greater than ever.

And yet… the overpowering message coming from Washington DC still is to cut taxes and cut spending…to ignore the plight of the bereft man at the Metro card machine.

Pushing this allegory to its logical conclusion I considered how the unknown man in the subway who represents the arts sector will fare next year when he again lacks the 45 cents he needs to change the world. What can this man expect from the public sector, represented by National Endowment for the Arts?

About 40 cents. 

Whose helping hand will it be next time?


lolo said...

Thank you for this wonderful bit. We in the arts, are all going to be the man looking for 45 cents.... I remember a great T-Shirt that said" It will be a sad day when the government has to hold a Bake Sale to by ammunition". We are at the point of Bake Sales....

Steve Ames said...

I agree lolo, the issue is that our spending, driven by fear, greed and deception, is increasingly directed towards defense spending. It's inane.

Cher said...

Thank you for your story. As I sit in front of my third grant application to begin an arts education program at our non-profit...I am feeling very much like the "unknown men and women" who sit at the periphery of our busy, consumption-oriented world." Perhaps they are there to ground us, to remind us to be humble AND thankful for the gifts that come our way. I am deeply grateful for the Vermont Arts Council AND I am a sustaining member!!! Because you are there for us, I am there for you!

Anonymous said...

Well, said! Our society has lost sight of what truly makes us human and what makes life worth living.