Bailout Blues on the New York Subway

For immediate release: Tales from the MTA

by Steven Sher

The growing ranks of panhandlers greeting my ride to work are no different from the big banks lining up to be bailed out by Washington. While it is one's civic duty to help the down and out, there are so many of them these days and every one of them wants-expects-a piece of me, though there is only so much to go around. And yet their appeals have gotten so inventive that one has to work hard not to encourage them.

by oscar durand on With so many down on their luck, it's caused a run on the MTA-like a run on a bank-sad case after sad case working the commuter crowds, morning and night, for spare change. Someone plies his woe begotten tale the length of the car, styrofoam cup in hand, blessing each giver, then exits the train. As soon as he does, another casualty of the streets enters from the car ahead, beginning his spiel. It's like tryouts at an audition.

Rarely does this translate into any significant transfer of wealth since the rest of us are strapped for cash these days as well. But it makes for entertaining rides and the images live on as testaments to an enterprising spirit.

At $2 a swipe, where else can one catch a bit of Broadway drama, reality TV, family tell-all, Hollywood sitcom, stand-up comedy and shrink session all rolled into one? Before reaching Times Square.

unknown found on google image search, appears to be from sawlady.comI have seen some quality acts work the cars as if they are hoping to be discovered. Star Search. American Idol. A spot on Letterman. The mariachi band, decked out in cowboy hats and Western boots, out of Washington Heights. The folk star wannabes with long hair and pawnshop guitars. The plastic tub drummers and the joking jugglers. The aging a cappella groups and the teenage break dancers who squeezed back flips amid the riders. The young mother who wanted only food for her children, one with large eyes walking beside her, like a ventriloquist and dummy. The homeless vet who fought in Iraq and thought the train would strike a roadside bomb. The repentant who fell onto his knees to lead us in prayer as we lunged through pitch-black tunnel. Innovative shticks, every last one.

Whenever the market takes another hit, a new act appears. One day a middle-aged man, nicely dressed though slightly musty and unkempt, as if he had slept in his clothes, stepped into the car. He strode with confidence down the aisle as if it were a corporate boardroom, his voice booming above the squeal of the rails:

"I'm sorry to disturb you good people. But I need your help...I've made bad choices. It's all my fault-it's all on me...Once I used to be somebody. I made lots of money. Then I invested with Bernie Madoff and lost everything...This is my first time on the subway in 30 years. Can you believe it?...I haven't eaten all day. Can you help me do lunch?...A quarter. A nickel. A penny...God bless."

Visibly moved, I was about to bail him out with a bit of change when the train jolted and he went flying, dropping his newspaper and his wallet--I spotted the credit cards and checkbook littering the floor. As he pocketed the evidence and straightened up, I stretched my hand in his direction before he could extend his hand in mine.

Maybe now I would see some of that stimulus package I had been promised.

Steven Sher, currently living in New York City, is the author of twelve books including the recently-published (Jan. 2009) Where the Shouting Began and the forthcoming The House of Washing Hands. His writing has appeared in more than 200 publications; his satire in the pages of The Oregonian, etc. Readers can find out more about him at

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