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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Heart of gold

Gary Dee (CC BY-SA 2.0)
This was taken about halfway up the block on the east side of Broadway, between 79th and 80th Street. It’s at the north end of the “Filene’s Basement” store on the corner, and it’s a place where I’ve often seen homeless people holding up a sign that asks for assistance… With very rare exceptions, I haven’t photographed these homeless people; it seems to me that they’re in a very defensive situation, and I don’t want to take advantage of their situation. But something unusual was happening here: the two women (who were actually cooperating, and acting in tandem, despite the rather negative demeanor of the woman on the left) were giving several parcels of food to the young homeless man on the right. I don’t know if the women were bringing food from their own kitchen, or whether they had brought it from a nearby restaurant. But it was obviously a conscious, deliberate activity, and one they had thousght about for some time… What was particularly interesting was that they didn’t dwell, didn’t try to have a conversation with the young man;they gave him they food they had brought, and promptly walked away. As they left, I noticed the young man peering into his bag (the one you see on the ground beside him in this picture) to get a better sense of the delicious meal these two kind women had brought him… ********************** This is part of an evolving photo-project, which will probably continue throughout the summer of 2008, and perhaps beyond: a random collection of “interesting” people in a broad stretch of the Upper West Side of Manhattan — between 72nd Street and 104th Street, especially along Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. I don’t like to intrude on people’s privacy, so I normally use a telephoto lens in order to photograph them while they’re still 50-100 feet away from me; but that means I have to continue focusing my attention on the people and activities half a block away, rather than on what’s right in front of me. I’ve also learned that, in many cases, the opportunities for an interesting picture are very fleeting — literally a matter of a couple of seconds, before the person(s) in question move on, turn away, or stop doing whatever was interesting. So I’ve learned to keep the camera switched on (which contradicts my traditional urge to conserve battery power), and not worry so much about zooming in for a perfectly-framed picture … after all, once the digital image is uploaded to my computer, it’s pretty trivial to crop out the parts unrelated to the main subject. For the most part, I’ve deliberately avoided photographing bums, drunks, drunks, and crazy people. There are a few of them around, and they would certainly create some dramatic pictures; but they generally don’t want to be photographed, and I don’t want to feel like I’m taking advantage of them. I’m still looking for opportunities to take some “sympathetic” pictures of such people, which might inspire others to reach out and help them. We’ll see how it goes … The only other thing I’ve noticed, thus far, is that while there are lots of interesting people to photograph, there are far, far, *far* more people who are *not* so interesting. They’re probably fine people, and they might even be more interesting than the ones I’ve photographed … but there was just nothing memorable about them.

At this stage in life I can’t afford to be a charitable person consistently, but when I am, the question of why did I just give my hard earned cash away always pops into my head. Then, while on the cusp of falling asleep the thought of what exactly this person did with the money I gave them forces me awake for another hour.

When giving charity, the fear of going through a sad, self-reflective journey makes me take the long way around just to avoid denying the request of a particular corner’s inhabitant while I’m on my daily route.

Avoiding the homeless still leaves the hollow feeling of moral failure in my stomach every time I pass by. So instead of trying to bury the feelings in the already rim full trash-basket which is my guilty conscious, I decided to take some time to reflect on the dilemma of giving charity to the homeless.

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I suppose your view on the subject comes from your upbringing. My mother was always the one giving money to those in need while my father would give on rare occasions spread across many years. My parents provided me with two different outlooks. 

My mother was the one who would give out of compassion and religious beliefs while my father would usually contribute to the realists’ point of view on substance addiction and enablement. These two influences from my childhood have impacted me since. I’m my mother when I give and my father when I take the long way around.

My parents also enrolled my siblings and I in catechism during our youth. Some of the lessons they teach there are to “give to those in need” or “what would Jesus do?” 

After years of pondering on what church and society teaches about “giving,” I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone gives in order to receive. I think giving charity to the homeless is always a touchy subject for this reason. 

Life is full of decisions where one gives with the expectation to receive. Some give to prove they are good enough to get into heaven. Some give themselves in a relationship with the expectation of sexual or mental satisfaction. I’m giving all my money to an institutionalized college with the hopes of receiving a piece of paper I’m worthy of bringing in an above average income. The list goes on and on, but the main point to remember, is that people who give all the time are not always as selfless as they seem. 

Videos clutter the internet of people giving to those who are less fortunate. Those people don’t post their videos online to make you jealous of their generosity, they post them so their like ratio on Facebook can soar through the roof in order to further convince themselves of their own good nature. 

Churches fill everyone’s heads with guaranteed spots in heaven if you dump money into their baskets and feed the homeless on Thanksgiving. Non-givers tend to be labeled as selfish.

The real heroes out there are those you will never hear about. These individuals give not out of religious belief or with the expectation to receive something mentally or physically, but give because they see another human being in need. 

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Helping a stranger without any expectations of receiving, as if they were like family, holds more value to it than someone posting themselves giving charity online. 

The reason I avoid the person on the corner isn’t out of guilt, it’s because I’m receiving nothing from it. Realizing this, the process of understanding and changing oneself can begin. 

Some days I give charity to the corner inhabitant and some days I don’t. Either way I try not to regret my choice. 

Knowing my flaw and understanding why it’s there allows me to see past the awkward situation, to the person who just spent the night sleeping on a slab of sidewalk. 

Giving ultimately comes down to the individual and their reasoning behind the action. Charity is always good, just make sure you’re not giving to yourself.

Follow Nicholas Leon on Twitter.

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