Alms for the poor

Walking through Paris a few early mornings ago with a newly arrived friend on my side, we found ourselves hailed by a young man breaking away from two of his friends and striding towards us crying “Pardon!”. As he got closer, sure enough he asked for one Euro to make a phone call. I was not in the mood, and he looked well enough dressed in a new black leather jacket as to not really require the money for his stated or any other purpose. So we said no and proceeded to half-way ignore him as we strode on. His two friends caught up and the three of them finally gave up, though not without him calling us “fils de putes”, which he also translated into English (in case we hadn’t understood). A while later as my friend and i sat in a bakery eating our croissants and drinking our Lavazza coffee, the young man showed up again and walked into the store repeating his demand and even offering to give change back. Wanting to be rid of him, i gave him a 2 Euro piece but failed to get any change back. This little Parisian farce brings two thoughts to mind.

First, i probably should have insisted on him giving me change back for my two Euro coin. This would have changed the nature of our transaction from a bullying for money into something closely enough resembling a standard economic transaction; we would then have both felt ourselves to have been on a level playing field: he would not have gone away (probably) muttering what a “fucking idiot” i was, and i in turn would not have been stuck with the muddy feeling of having been walked all over. In effect, i should have turned the whole situation into a game, taking the lead on this annoying personage and enforcing a relationship that was more fair (or less unfair) that what actually transpired. I think he would also have been better off – if only by having gained a modicum of respect for the stranger i was to him.

Second, i perhaps should have stayed my course and not given him anything, but rather shooed him out of the bakery – so as not to encourage that sort of obnoxious behavior. That is the standard reasoning of the countless thousands who give only to beggars who are doing something, be it juggling, making music or giving them directions. This is the spirit of capitalism par excellence. It is obviously not the only rule to go by in such situations, but i can’t say i have found a good reason not to follow it, given the scarcity of my means at any rate.

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