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Against Compassion

[Below this entry readers have been commenting on an item concerning Amazon, Seasonal Giving, and the Homeless. It would seem that giving alms has become more complicated than just tossing some change to a person who asks you to “spare a quarta?” This, from 2009, is a small tale about my own experience.]

Outside the ancient offices of the Cosmoangelic Book Publishers that I once worked in at 2 Park Street in Boston, an old lady stood with her back to the old bricks on every working day. A square yard of sidewalk was her office. Eyes behind thick glasses were watery-gray. She stood hunched in a permanent flinch like some dog who’d been struck too many times for nothing. She dressed in clean, shabby, but not too shabby, clothing — warm enough for the winters and cool enough when summer came around at last. To all who passed by her office she repeated her Bostonian-inflected mantra:
“Spare a quarta?”
“Spare a quarta?”
“Spare a quarta?”

She stood to the left of the entrance for part of the day and to the right for the remainder. You didn’t know when she’d shift, but she always seemed to be in your path as you came out of the building.

Going for some coffee?

“Spare a quarta?”

Going to lunch?

“Spare a quarta?”

Going to skip out on the afternoon and catch a matinee?

“Spare a quarta?”

I once spared her a quarta and went into the Boston Commons with a newspaper and watched her work at her job.

“Spare a quarta?”
“Spare a quarta?”
“Spare a quarta?”

She asked everyone. It was the secret to whatever success she had. Since Park Street led from the Park Street MTA stop to the Massachusetts capital building and other large skyscrapers several thousand people a day had to pass by her and hear “Spare a quarta?”

She got a quarter out of about every fifth person. I once estimated she made about $75 a day, tax free. That worked out to a take homeless of $18,750 a year in 1983. Not bad when you considered that she had zero overhead.

No matter how you look at it old “Spare a quarta?” was doing all right and, to tell the truth, I contributed my share. She looked like what everyone fears their mother might become if she fell on hard time, but she wasn’t scary. And she had perfect pitch. “Spare a quarta?” was slightly sing-song but never too whining. Just always said with an uplifting lilt right at the end of the opening note of desperation.

If you can’t be really good at anything without 10,000 hours of practice “Spare a quarta?” had put in her time and paid her dues in full.

As beggars go she was “The Fantastiks” of street hustlers. Her performance ran uninterrupted and packed her pockets with quarters for years. She’s probably long gone to her reward — be that in Potters Field or in a small house in the hinterlands that she bought for cash. But I like to think that she’s still there as the busy people of our era bustle up and down Park Street still shelling out to the refrain:

Try to remember the kind of September
“Spare a quarta?”
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
“Spare a quarta?”
Try to remember when life was so tender
“Spare a quarta?”
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
“Spare a quarta?”

I remember that in those days I had two things for her and those like her, compassion and a quarta. These days I’m fresh out of the former and I never get asked for just a quarta.

On the streets today they’ve decided they’ve got to entertain; that they’ve gotta have a gimmick and if they’re gonna bump it, they’re gonna bump it with a trumpet.” They offer me stories, crazy ramblings, scrawled signs of despair, signs that mock their begging (“Checks No Longer Accepted from These People”), vague threats and mumbles. They sell poems scrawled in a methadone daze, or make blunt demands for smokes now that smokes are half a buck.

I once gave to all who asked. Now I give to none. Once a year I write checks to funds for widows and orphans of police, firemen, and soldiers killed in the line of duty. Beyond that, I find I can no longer spare a quarta. And when I hear, in the back of my mind, the old Depression anthem “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” I find that although I can spare it, I no longer want to give it.

It has taken decades of ceaseless hectoring but at long last my compassion account in the Bank of Human Kindness is overdrawn. I’m tapped out. I still try to care but I find, if I am honest, I couldn’t care less.

I suppose this makes me a bad person. In the land that is more and more ruled by those eager to cadge money from me or pick my pockets “for the common good” I’m just no damned good to any of them. It doesn’t bother me any more. I have become, as the song says, “comfortably numb.”

I’ve been told, so often and so stridently, to feel this and to feel that and to feel for the downtrodden of the world, that I find I no longer feel anything at all. I don’t think I’m alone in not caring. I think caring and compassion, now that it has been institutionalized enough to demand caring and compassion, has finally found its limit.

In a world dimensional, a world of limits, caring finds itself flummoxed by its own best impulses. If we could inhabit any one of the endless utopias proposed to us by the dreamers and schemers among us, all would be well and all manner of things would be well. But we live in the world of sun, rain, dirt, steel and flesh where all that is needed for evil to triumph is that good men remain distracted by snake-oil hallucinations of perfection. And that they follow the instructions of their betters to feed these hallucinations of perfection in the fond hope that these toys of the mind will become real. The only thing that becomes real when you reach for Utopia is that those few who crave power over many become perpetual seekers of indulgences.

These indulgences of wish would remain harmless and essentially admirable as long as nothing more imperative or noble calls us. That which calls to us is not the world that may be, but the world that is as we make it day by day. We may, from time to time, be able to spare a quarta only so long as all our quartas are not constantly demanded of us. Quartas to spare can only come from surpluses.

Of late, those surpluses have been converted by events and history into deficits. Put simply, we can, at the present time, no longer afford to fund our ever expanding compassionate state. Compassion can never be made compulsory and cash-flow positive at the same time. Whenever and wherever compassion has been made compulsory the people soon find they no longer have care or quartas to spare.

Alert the Authorities!

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  • Casey Klahn December 14, 2017, 8:57 AM

    My 16 y.o. son is searching for a synthesis between capitalism and socialism, because he’s heard that neither works or is perfect. I try to steer him towards Reagan, whose rhetoric was to let the charities in the private sector do their job.

    Imagine if the Americans truly gave as they will and want to. That’d be more, I feel, than the social coffers of the gubmint can ever provide.

    I gave what for me was a lot to Sam’s Purse the past three months since the hurricanes. Enough to put a dent in my pocket. It’s interesting to have that feeling that comes with giving till it hurts.

    Anyway, the capitol system is the only fairness. Not perfect, but it is minted for imperfection. Let me have my property. I am a fallen soul, but there is some light in the blackness.

    I watched a You Tube where these art people were wearing Bernie Sanders T shirts with the words “Free Shit” in big letters emblazoned on them. It’s great, because they know the irony of their slogan. Some know, and still want to bludgeon you for your money (property). It’s a fighting impulse that has blood but no logic. They know it.

  • Donald Sensing December 14, 2017, 10:26 AM

    I remember when you posted this from years ago. In fact, I responded to it here: “The Professional Poor, the Idle Poor and the Poverty Traders.

    Also related, “Beware the compassion police — Why compassion cannot be a basis for public policy.

    “Compassion can never be made compulsory and cash-flow positive at the same time.” Brilliant!

  • Candy Cane December 14, 2017, 10:35 AM

    In my thirties, having moved from Reno to Sacramento for husbands work, I saw plenty of pathetic looking persons looking for handouts at red lights on the exit ramps. These sights filled my heart with compassion while considering “there, but by the grace of God, go I”. Whether I was a passenger or the driver I would sincerely pray for them and their situation. I don’t do that anymore, although I should return to that practice. We have just seen soooo many beggars who have a nice vehicle somewhere near by, a dog in that vehicle, and packs of cigarettes to smoke. We’ve actually seen them take what cash they get and head to the liquor store. What? Your sign stated you needed money for a broom to do your newly started house cleaning business. Today we give monthly to BGEA and Samaritans Purse where both the body and the soul will be ministered to. Still, it is sad that so many con artists out there have hardened our hearts.

  • Gringo December 14, 2017, 10:45 AM

    Decades ago I had an experience with a panhandler which cured me of giving out money. I had gone to NYC for the day. A panhandler approached me. His story was that he was a soldier stationed at Fort Dix, had his wallet stolen and needed money to purchase a bus ticket back to base. He said that would pay me back.

    I got a little suspicious when he tried to increase what he needed- money for a sandwich whatever.

    I was earning minimum wage from my dishwashing job while going to university, so it wasn’t easy money that I gave him. He never paid me back- which in retrospect shouldn’t have been a big surprise.

    I have no regrets for giving him the money. It was a good lesson for me. After that encounter I turned down panhandlers with no guilt feelings whatsoever. On occasion I have given food to panhandlers. I have heard that many panhandlers would prefer cash, to help pay for their habit.

    Several years before the Fort Dix story in NYC, a panhandler at Harvard Square had requested money from my sister and me. We replied that we barely had a penny to our names. He admitted to us that he didn’t make a bad living panhandling. Lot of students with rich parents around Harvard Square.

    When at a bus stop – my old car doesn’t always run- I have contributed 50 cents or some sum towards a bus pass when someone has requested assistance. It doesn’t happen often As I get a senior citizen discount, I have no problem with that.

    A panhandling story from Venezuela. Cars were being stopped to contribute money for a chapel. Well, it beat the “voluntary contributions” that highway patrolmen in Venezuela extorted for some nonexistent traffic violation.

  • OldFert December 14, 2017, 12:44 PM

    We’re often told that the beggars we see are homeless because of mental problems, or drug problems, or whatever.
    We used to institutionalize these folks, or arrest the bums. Or take them to the outskirts of town and tell them to be on their way.
    We’re told that it wouldn’t be good to institutionalize them because that would take away their dignity. What a misuse of the term “dignity.” So, we closed down the institutions back in the ‘70s. After all, Mr. Doe was just fine when he took his meds. So, we’ll release him. And give him free meds. Which he doesn’t take. And he doesn’t want to go to the shelter because of the rules, mannnnnn.
    And he’ll take our money he bums and buy some self-medication, legal or illegal, but not the ones prescribed to him.
    And on and on and so forth and so forth.
    So, here’s a seed of an idea to solve the problem:
    Reallocate some of the funding for a new jail or prison, or community college, or civic artwork, for a live-in facility for bums and homeless and beggars. It won’t be a come-and-go-as-you-please place, but won’t be jail, either. (I don’t know what it would be or how to do it. I’m just the idea guy, here.)
    Collect these people from the streets and homeless camps. Destroy the camps. Do not allow them to be re-established.
    If the people collected are wanted, remand them to the law.
    If they’re illegal, deport them.
    If they’re mental cases or drug addled, or “down on their luck” bring them to the new live-in facility. Maybe even try to give them some “how to live as a non-parasite” training.
    If they demonstrate an ability to function in society, release them.
    If they wind up back, either institutionalize them for life, or take them to the bus station, buy them a ticket to San Francisco or Seattle, and let them be on their way.

  • ghostsniper December 14, 2017, 12:57 PM

    Vagrancy used to be a crime, then communism came to town.
    You know, the idea that everybody is “equal”, so we’ll all be panhandlers eventually.

  • pbird December 14, 2017, 1:27 PM

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGwNIbNtRi4

    A local business has put a camera up so the town can see what goes on down on the street where the mission for homeless men is. Its a real mess sometimes. They are coming down a little harder on them lately.

  • pbird December 14, 2017, 1:29 PM
  • Snakepit Kansas December 14, 2017, 6:37 PM

    Casey,
    Buy your 16 year old son BASIC ECONOMICS by Thomas Sowell. Pragmatic and simple to understand for those minds that are in desire of forming.

    As for helping others… not that many years ago I was in a parking lot and a man approached me saying his truck broke down on a highway close by. He only needed a ride to a place about three miles away. I am fairly good at discerning the average BS story and although my guard was up, I told the guy I would give him a ride. I was armed, as frequently I am. He jumped in and headed toward the major intersection that he needed to go. Then he said we needed to take a slight detour, and it was into a not-so-nice neighborhood. He then needed a few bucks. Oh hell no. We got to his point of destination in the middle of a very bad neighborhood. He wouldn’t get out of the car without some money. I got stern and told him to get out. There was no pay day today. He got out. How stupid of me. In such close proximity, if he had a knife, my concealed Glock 23 would have been useless.

  • Kauf Buch December 15, 2017, 2:25 AM

    “Against Compassion” EXEMPLIFIES the Leftist bent in mis-interpreting goodwill towards men.
    It makes the assumption that, to be compassionate, YOU MUST “give give give” until it hurts and,
    if you don’t, YOU’RE A VERRRRY BAD, EVIL, HEARTLESS SCROOGE.

    “You don’t caaaaare!”
    SCR*W THAT!

    I. Am. Compassionate.
    And *I* choose HOW, WHEN, and TO WHOM to show it.

    I can’t help the mentally ill.
    I can’t help the homeless directly.
    I won’t help the drugridden or otherwise self-destructive.
    And to h*ll with the outright lazy and dishonest.

    That pretty much leaves the down-on-yer-luck genuine article.
    You got a Genuine-O-Meter? I don’t.

    But: DON’T DARE peddle any “you’re worse than I am for not helping” cr*pola around me.

  • Anonymous December 15, 2017, 4:07 AM

    “In such close proximity, if he had a knife, my concealed Glock 23 would have been useless.”
    ==================================

    And one of my legendary fish billy’s in the door pocket could have saved your life.
    2 pounds of determined equalized justice right in your hand in a second.

    There is a space between the drivers seat and the console that perfectly fits the Uncle Mikes ballistic nylon holster that contains my Beretta Bobcat in an upright position ready to be grabbed yet sits low enough that it is invisible to everyone else.

  • Kauf Buch December 15, 2017, 6:08 AM

    As a “p.s.” to my mini-rant above, I offer only the following:

    The notion that *not* enabling such societal parasites is being “against compassion”
    is EXACTLY the Leftist “rationalization” (sic) process which allows them to follow up with,
    “therefore, I’ll MAKE you ‘care’ by having the Government *force* to you to contribute…via an endless number and variety of degenerate social programs which I, the morally superior one, deem to be necessary and good”.

    Well, F THAT.

  • Punditarian December 15, 2017, 8:25 AM

    “Vagrancy used to be a crime, then communism came to town.
    You know, the idea that everybody is “equal”, so we’ll all be panhandlers eventually.”

    Actually, vagrancy and unemployment are virtues to communists only before the revolution.
    After the revolution, vagrancy and unemployment are crimes of parasitism, and the offenders get sent to work camps in the Gulag archipelago.

  • Kauf Buch December 15, 2017, 1:07 PM

    TO Punditarian
    1) SEE my post to you in the thread below this one.
    2) You sort of get it but, in the communism*I* know (Central Europe),
    the FORCED SYSTEM OF CARING forced people to not only work but also pay tribute/tax.
    In that sense, they were unemployed, because the productivity (not even addressing what it did to the human soul to have just about every ounce of personal initiative stolen/squelched from you) reflected the reality of Communist Compassion.

  • Kauf Buch December 15, 2017, 1:08 PM

    p.s. I consider it NO DIFFERENT from the American (Leftist?) approach.
    It USED TO BE different here…*sigh*

  • Punditarian December 15, 2017, 1:15 PM

    Hi Kauf Buch, I think we are in general agreement. I think that “compassion” for the downtrodden is in the communist system mainly a dodge – I think that this sort of fellow-feeling did animate many of the “militants de base,” who I think you will agree were deluded, but the system as a whole is not compassionate at all. What I was trying to say was that before the socialists take power, the unemployed, the vagrants, the starving masses are victims of the capitalist system and the bourgeoisie, for whom the cadres and the citizens are expected to have compassion, even to the point of making that compassion the emotional rationale for overthrowing all of society. After the socialists take power, on the other hand, those who refuse to work for “the common good” are blood-sucking, free-loading parasites who are committing a crime against the (democratic socialist) State, and therefore must be re-educated, imprisoned, or annihilated.

    In my thinking about socialism, by the way, I was greatly influenced by the work of Academician I. Shafarevich.

  • Kauf Buch December 15, 2017, 3:46 PM

    To Punditarian
    If I understand you right, you’re actually trying to say,
    “…before socialists take power, the unemployed, vagrants…bla bla bla… arePORTRAYED BY THE COMMUNISTS AS victims of the capitalist system…
    Because THAT’S THE BIG LIE OF COMMUNISM/SOCIALISM.
    They AREN’T, but they are USED as “pawns” AS IF they were “victims.”

    Hence: false “compassion.”

  • Kauf Buch December 15, 2017, 3:50 PM

    I KEEP GETTING CENSRED ON THIS SITE…WHY?!?

    False compassion is false compassion.
    Those so-called “victims” of the capitalist system are merely people the totalitarians are appealing to,
    to become Useful Idiots to let THOSE totalitarians take control/power over everyone.

    the lazy lie is that “someone else” is going to make it alright…when, in fact,
    IT’S YOU WHO MUST DO SO…live free or die…THEY MEANT IT LITERALLY!!!

  • Vanderleun December 15, 2017, 4:41 PM

    SHOUTING BACK!!!!! YOU ARE NOT BEING CENSORED, KLAUS.

    There is a glitch in the spam filter that decides, in a computer like cold hearted manner, that your comments need to be held back for human review.

    I, for one, DO NOT KNOW why this happens though I have invested some hours in trying to understand why.

    What does happen is that a few times a day at random I inspect the spam filter for folks like you that have mistakenly been caught by the filter. Then I approve the posts. Manually.

    Does that clear this up?

  • Howard Nelson December 17, 2017, 5:50 PM

    Brother, can you a dime?
    Yes. I’ve been waiting to give it to someone needier than you. Do you know that someone? If so, take this dime and give it to them — if they know no one needier. Ask them to ask the same question until the neediest is found for receiving. That last one will bless you all, always, all ways. If you don’t believe me, ask Francis; he only knows and speaks the truth.