Living in China he became inured to the pleas of the homeless, crippled, and burned. Embarrassed by his riches, even in the earliest days of part-time jobs teaching his native tongue to children for the barest of stipends, he gave coins as they came to him. A few in the morning, to the boy with but one arm in the Hengshan Lu subway station. They were the same age, he and the boy, or close. One of them was surviving in a foreign land on the gifts of his birthplace, the other in a city far from his home on the gifts of those who pitied his loss of limb and with it the ability to work the land he had come from. A five on occasion to the old man who tottered in front of the Lawson convenience store on Gao An Lu, a bamboo stick for his cane, Mao-era blues padded underneath with layers and layers of clothing to blunt the wind. Most of the time this old man waited with his eyes closed, though he was not blind, arising with his cup only when alerted by the sensor at the Lawson’s door of a customer’s exit. The creative use of this annoying ding dong amused the boy from America and he did what he could.
But in time the numbers overwhelmed his ability to care, and aside from those he already recognized he gave sparingly. Cripples on carts dragging themselves down Shanxi Nan Lu elicited no sympathy. Neither did women holding hungry children they may or may not have borne. The enterprise that it had become, that it perhaps had always been, was too obvious, and the women who banged at his arms as he exited the subway were too brusque. Only music still made him search out spare change, flute players and trumpeters, the old man with an erhu and others with instruments whose names he did not know. This, he reckoned, was not charity at all, but payment for joy, for the echoes in the subway and the kind welcome home after a long day’s journey.
With this mentality he moved back to the country of his native tongue. The number of potentially self-maimed youths lying on the sidewalk was comfortingly less, and yet the total numbers didn’t seem to change.
In San Francisco though they are not burn victims or legless farmers, they are not his age, and their injuries are invisible. Some, when approached inadvertently, scream, or curse his presence. There are those who simply ask for money, and those with clever signs that read “It’s morning I need coffee,” and on the reverse “No lie I want to buy wine.” The startling part, to this boy grown accustomed to China’s injured masses, is not the wit but the vehemence, the random verbal assaults. One day as he exits the bus he comes face to face with the neighborhood woman. He has no other term for her, but she can always be found somewhere on the two blocks to either side of his apartment. Often she hides behind the tree next to the gas station. He flinches at her presence, drawing back because of their most recent encounter, him biking home one evening and her standing in the middle of an intersection cursing at him as he passed. He braces for the yelling, for the strangely strung together assault, and when she speaks calmly, a quiet “could I have two dollars” he is uncertain. The other passengers push at his back, and he slinks away, sad and confused.
And still he gives money to those who make music.