July 5, 2006

I don't think that anecdote means what you think it means.

A letter in today's NYT:
After reading "The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier," I remembered how a few years ago, I had a friend visit me here in Pittsburgh, and we went strolling down a street with bookstores and cafes.

After passing a beggar with his can, my friend asked me if I could give him a couple of bucks, and thinking it was for a coffee at the adjacent cafe, I handed him the money.

To my amazement, he returned his steps and handed the money to the beggar. He then struck up a conversation.

A good five minutes later, he walked back toward me, and I told him that if I knew it was to give out free money, I wouldn't have given it to him.

He answered: "Here in America nobody talks to you. But for two bucks, I bought myself five minutes of conversation." Alexis Rzewski
Huh? What puzzles me about the writer's apparently fond remembrance of this story is not so much that the friend deceived her and implicitly expressed opprobrium by extracting money from her to give to the beggar she'd just passed by, it's that the guy made her stand around waiting while he had a five minute conversation with the beggar and then delivered a sermonette about it. "For two bucks, I bought myself five minutes of conversation"? Damn, I would have said we were just having a conversation for free and then you made me stand around with no one to talk to while you had to act like you were befriending him so you could think especially well about yourself -- and come back and brag about it. I sure as hell wouldn't have treasured the memory for years and then written to the NYT about it as if the friend had taught me an important life lesson.

ADDED: This item got me thinking about the horrid Bette Midler song (written by John Prine), "Hello in There," you know the one that ends:
So if you're walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don't just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn't care, say, hello in there, hello.

59 comments:

Internet Ronin said...

This type of story is so old-hat, don't you think? Every once in a while, we get these lectures from someone about how isolated and lonely we all are. The first treatment I remember, and very dimly at that, is Philip Slater's book "The Pursuit of Loneliness." While it was published long before the advent of Home Depot and the Home & Garden Channel, I think one of his points was that Americans were do-it-yourselfers because they feared contact with others. (They couldn't possibly actually enjoy what they were doing, I guess. That would be too easy an answer - and unworthy of a book contract ;-)

As for the ancedote, Alexis's conversational skills must have been really bad for her friend to pay someone else for 5 minutes of decent conversation.

David said...

It has always been my experience that people have a story to tell and most of them are just waiting for someone to say, "How's it going today?"

Conversational skills are lacking in today's world. The internet lacks the personal touch and is symptomatic of the problem. Although you can write about deeply personal matters, lacking the physical experience of looking into another's eyes, watching their expressions, observing their emotions, and responding as one being to another, internet communication pales by comparison.

The ability to hear what others say and understand why they are saying it is a gift that we all have.

It requires that you show an interest in someone or something more important than yourself. I have had more excellent conversations with the poor and indigent than intellectual snobs who hide in concepts and ignore reality.

We all have an interesting story to tell!

Robert Burnham said...

It's just two liberals playing moral-superiority oneupmanship — first he with her, then she with us.

That's why she's treasured the anecdote of the encounter. She lost the gambit to him, but now her sensitized self can preen (if the letter gets published, which it did) to the entire NY Times readership.

And by freely admitting she lost the game to her companion years ago, she can present a false-humble self that gives her a couple extra points in the score.

Plus she can parade her agreement with the popular trope that all-Americans-are-isolated-souls.

In the moral superiority sweepstakes, isn't that what people call a trifecta?

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dadgum said...

If he's that desperate for self-serving conversation the bum should've demanded twenty bucks.

Thorley Winston said...

As for the ancedote, Alexis's conversational skills must have been really bad for her friend to pay someone else for 5 minutes of decent conversation.

Apparently Alexis is a he.

dreamingmonkey said...

No, the winner of the moral superioroity sweepstakes is the person who can turn this thread into another sermon on "the problem with liberals"

Goesh said...

All that aside, beggars and drifters have some very interesting stories to tell, many of which can be obtained for free by the way. Many years ago when I was on the road and drifting with naught but a pack and no cares, I would beg on Sunday morning in front of the most prosperous looking church I could find. I would quickly get enough for a meal and leave. "Alms - alms" I would say and shake a cup at those wearing the nicest looking clothes. People were quick to throw in a dollar and back then, 5 bucks could get you a darn good meal. I would always tip the waitress with any change left over and then hit the road. On the back roads, it was advisable to fake a limp as a vehicle approached as a better means to get a ride. People like stories of salvation and I had a standard prodigal son story I would tell, that from a wayward life of sin and dereliction, I was returning to my family in a state of redemption and salvation. That was always good for a left-over sandwich or some soda and junk food and sometimes a dollar or two, though I never begged for money except on Sunday. I found most people were inclined to talk about themselves and were glad for a listening ear. It is amazing what people will disclose to complete strangers. We all look for reassurance that we are at least trying to do the right thing in our lives.

Thorley Winston said...

No, the winner of the moral superioroity sweepstakes is the person who can turn this thread into another sermon on "the problem with liberals"

So what happens in the event of a tie?

Thorley Winston said...

Many years ago when I was on the road and drifting with naught but a pack and no cares, I would beg on Sunday morning in front of the most prosperous looking church I could find. I would quickly get enough for a meal and leave. "Alms - alms" I would say and shake a cup at those wearing the nicest looking clothes. People were quick to throw in a dollar and back then, 5 bucks could get you a darn good meal. I would always tip the waitress with any change left over and then hit the road. On the back roads, it was advisable to fake a limp as a vehicle approached as a better means to get a ride. People like stories of salvation and I had a standard prodigal son story I would tell, that from a wayward life of sin and dereliction, I was returning to my family in a state of redemption and salvation.

So basically you took advantage of these people’s kindness by conning them with a phony story and faking an injury. You must be so proud of yourself.

Ann Althouse said...

Thorley: I think the comment here was the phoney story, but it was a pretty cool one.

Jim said...

Alexis is a guy whose wife is a professor at Univ of Pittsburg. I worked with him in the fall of 1994, in "The Springs". He is one of several of the best story tellers I know, and had great tales about working in Manhatten, in early 1990's. I guess that this item is another of his tales, which he likes to spin.

I disagree about people not wanting to talk. Alexis must just not be running in the right circles, right now.

Fatmouse said...

"Here in America nobody talks to you."

Well, yeah, if you're in freaking New York. But those uncivilized savages in flyover country don't have anything worth saying, so never mind.

And dreamingmonkey, the problem is specifically with self-obsessed liberals who have to gush over their (rare) acts of petty good will. "I gave a couple bucks to a bum! I waved a banner at a protest! I RECYCLED!"

Do you think the beggar really wanted to talk to the smug jerk? Tell his life story whole recieving a condescending look of pity? I'd want him out of the way so someone else could drop their spare change.

PatCA said...

So if he doesn't like the free conversation and stops to buy it from a street person, does that make him a conversation john?

I do not give credence to any moralism based on broad stereotypes like "Americans do this..." or "black people do that..." That pretty much eliminates me from NYT readership.

Tim Sisk said...

Great twist on one of my favorite "Princess Bride" quotes!

One of my others: "My naaamee is Inigo Montoya. You kiilled my faather. Prepare to dieee!!!"

Internet Ronin said...

Ann: Yet another reminder about just how easy it is to misunderstand the intent of the written word (as opposed to the spoken word.)

ignacio said...

panhandlers are more and more part of the very organized street kid, street family culture run by ex-cons. they don't "need" the money. but if they don't show up at the squat that night with $10, for instance, "daddy" will tell them they can't come in to sleep.

Townleybomb said...

No, the winner of the moral superioroity sweepstakes is the person who can turn this thread into another sermon on "the problem with liberals"

Which in turn enables you to feel morally superior to the commenters who've criticized the guy. Which I admit to getting a certain smug frisson out of as well. Looks like everyone wins in this sweepstakes! Not to mention that bum who got a couple of bucks a few years back.

You know what the Hungarians call this kind of insufferably virtuous cycle? A psfhyad.

dew said...

I can only think of one spot in Pittsburgh that would be a street that one might stroll down with both panhandlers and multiple cafes and bookstores - South Craig St., right between Carnegie Mellon and Pitt (universities). Pittsburgh may have changed since I went to school there, but I seem to remember that there were plenty of friendly people around that part of the city. I was no extrovert when I lived there, but I would never have dreamed of paying someone for a conversation in Pittsburgh – of course, I was just a poor student rarely with an extra $2 to blow on a random conversation even if I had thought of it.

Jack said...

I note that the story doesn't say they were talking just that they were strolling. If I had friends like that, I probably wouldn't talk to them much either. You would always be afraid of saying the wrong thing and getting a nice moral lesson for your trouble.

But does anyone else suspect that the "if I knew it was to give out free money" line is a bit disengenuous? Somehow I can't picture Alexis as having that particular objection.

Ann Althouse said...

1. Internet Ronin: What's your interpretation of the anecdote that you don't think means what I think it means? Of do you mean other commenters don't?

2. Why is this story interpreted as being about liberals? I could imagine a conservative doing this: charity, delivered with an effort at morally elevating the poor soul.

3. If the writer is a guy and the story is about 2 guys, then I think it puts a different spin on it. Imagining myself as a guy whose guy friend did this to him, I think I'd respond by calling him an asshole. Or by needling him for the rest of the day demanding $2 every 5 minutes for the privilege of talking to me.

paulfrommpls said...

Ann, do you mean Bette M's version is horrible? I can well imagine. The song itself is defintiely corny, but the best of Dickens is corny. I love the song.

Paddy O. said...

The funny thing is if the guy had been talking on the cell phone for 5 minutes to whoever called it would be part of accepted American culture. We make friends wait five minutes all the time while we do something of selfish interest or other sort of alienating activity.

Five minutes isn't that long of time. The friend could have joined in the conversation, or stared at a bird flying by, or otherwise used his time for personal contemplation.

Seems there's a problem in our society both with waiting and with talking.

Tom in LA said...

I think the real point of the story is that many "progressives" will happily give away your money so they can feel morally superior.

Thorley Winston said...

Why is this story interpreted as being about liberals?

Because if a conservative or other normal person wrote a letter to the NYT about a friend who borrowed money from him to give to a panhandler it would end with “and I rode in the ambulance him to the hospital where they extracted my shoe from his ass.”

SteveR said...

I never heard Bette's version, but well remember Prine's. Funny I thought of him the other day when the flag issue came up, "Your Flag Decals Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore"

Pogo said...

I always love these stories, precisley because they probably didn't happen.

It's the kind of Reader's Digest filler from which one might glean a bit of a smile or a small "ah hah", but more often makes you think, "No. Freakin'. Way."

Ann Althouse said...

Paul: Bette sings it well, I just cringe at the lyrics. I think "Hello in there" is a really insulting thing to say to someone. Basically, the notion is that there are all these people who look as though they aren't even human anymore. They're just shells. But actually, inside there is a human being that you might be able to awaken.

"You know that old trees just grow stronger/And old rivers grow wilder every day/Old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say, hello in there, hello."

So, old people basically have no lives.... unless you come along and revive them with your attention. It's insulting! It's a young person's idea of what the old are like ... really, the expression of the view that their lives are worthless. But maybe if they could just get a little taste of you, they could find some shred of happiness. They're just waiting. Yuck! It's insulting.... and it's treacly.

paulfrommpls said...

I see what you mean, Ann. But there are old people of the sort John mentions. I think John would say, he wasn't really talking about all old people.

Maybe he was talking about the old people I saw sitting at the video slots in Las Vegas, especially in the old Downtown like at the Plaza, last week.

SteveR said...

The classic Seinfeld episode where Jerry, George and Elaine thought hanging out with some old folks was such a noble thing.

tommy said...

Am I the only person that reads this and thinks the beggar got 50 cents and the friend pocketed a buck fifty?

And you make Alexis feel good about being the mark to boot.

Ann Althouse said...

SteveR: Yeah! I'll bet anything Jerry hates that John Prine song.

Wurly said...

Ann-

Why do you imagine you'd react differently if you were a guy? I gather that, as a woman, you would still think the friend was being an asshole. But you imply that you wouldn't express that thought to (1) another woman, or (2) a guy if you were a woman.

I would call "asshole" on either another guy or a woman who was a good friend and not a propective romantic partner. (But then again, any hope for a real romantic relationship with such an asshole would be slight.)

YAMB said...

Am I the only one who thinks of that as a Joan Baez song, not a Bette Midler one?

JohnF said...

I am amazed at the dope who not only lived this anecdote and then wrote about it, but also at the dopes who published it.

paulfrommpls said...

I'll bet Jerry doesn't know that John Prine song.

SteveR said...

Jerry: Well, do you want to go out for a walk, get a cup of coffee...

Sid: With you? I'd rather be dead.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann Althouse said...

Wurly said..."Why do you imagine you'd react differently if you were a guy? I gather that, as a woman, you would still think the friend was being an asshole. But you imply that you wouldn't express that thought to (1) another woman, or (2) a guy if you were a woman."

I'm just being honest about how I felt different about the story once I learned that the writer was a guy. Thinking that it was a guy treating a woman like that, I saw disrespect above all. For a man to walk away from a woman and leave her standing there while he talked to a beggar for five minutes and then came back and pontificated about it. I felt that the woman would have to let him know she should not be treated like that. But it felt more casual to me, less momentous, if it was just two guys. In which case, I think I'd just mock him. Maybe I'm just picturing two women. I don't really know what I'd do in the situation -- not wait 5 minutes while the guy gave my money to someone else and got into a conversation....

Tim said...

Yeah, a couple of very sensitive guys strolling a downtown Pittsburgh street with bookstores and cafes, extracting a universal, metaphysical truth of life in modern, heartless America resulting from passing out two dollars to panhandler.

Yeah, I'd guess conservatives too. Definitely conservatives.

Unless, of course, you know any conservative guys, that is.

Internet Ronin said...

Ann: In answer to your question,
What's your interpretation of the anecdote that you don't think means what I think it means? Or do you mean other commenters don't?
Actually, I was commenting on your comment about Thorley's comment about Goesh's comment, and reflecting on how often something that would be obviously "said in jest" can appear quite different to readers when "written in jest."

While I'm at it, as for why many assume the author is liberal, it fits a stereotype (sounds like a variation of an old joke I dimly remember about a liberal borrowing someone else's money to give away to a third). As for myself, I've never heard or read a self-identified conservative advocate the idea that Americans are lonely (or need to pay for conversation), but I have encountered similar contentions by liberals and leftist since first reading Philip Slater's book.

I think your point about how the sex of the person involved makes a difference is spot-on, particularly that one male would probably razz another male for the rest of the day about getting his $2 back.

Major K said...

I think that the story of how someone had to spend two bucks to have a conversation with a bum is as pathetic as the old trope about a mother whose child was so disliked that she had to tie a pork chop around its neck to get the dog to play with it.

Joel said...

The person is liberal because they wrote the letter to the New York Times, duh. The other guy is liberal because, like all liberals, they only give to the poor with other people's money.

The reason no one talks to any one in American cities is because the only conversation you get is "hey big man, you got a couple of bucks". Hell, I might reverse the whip, give the guy .50 cents and chat him up for about an hour and see how long his guilt keeps him talking to me while i filibuster his ass.

Half smile at someone in the country and they will bend your ear talking about how the corn needs rain, or the 6 point they shot last week. Only traffic jams in the country are when two guys are blocking traffic on the farm to market yakking away from thier vehicles.

I was working in border towns in mexico and coming back, waiting in line to cross, the Mexicans have crap for sale on the side of the road and a lot of beggar children are out, some selling chicklets and candy, some of the cuter ones just stare at you with puppy dog eyes and hold thier hand out, my buddy says "gimme some change", I just look at him like he's crazy, but he cant take the stare downs and undoes his seat belt and digs in his pocket and gets a dollar out. No sooner had that kid left than five more sprint to his window with thier hands out, I just started laughing at him cuz he wouldnt give any more, having sated his guilty concious. They followed the car to the border.

Jennifer said...

Soooo, Alexis' friend doesn't even find him fit to participate in a bought-and-paid-for convo? Why'd he have to leave him standing there on the street? Isn't it good form to include in conversation all parties present?

This whole story sounds made up to me. And the irony is that Alexis carefully crafted this story and it still doesn't mean what he thinks it means.

Mr. Snitch said...

"you had to act like you were befriending him so you could think especially well about yourself -- and come back and brag about it"

Congratulations. You have captured the very essence of the left.

This unfortunate, self-aggrandizing tendency is as old as man. To counter it, Jesus told his followers:

"when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret."

Jewish teachings likewise emphasize doing good deeds in secret (mitzvah).

Despite such examples, the temptation to parade one's virtues for the public has proven generally irresistable. The left happens to be particularly nauseating (Cindy Sheehan et al), but few of us are immune.

Patterico said...

For two bucks he got the satisfaction of knowing the bum was 40% of the way to his next cocaine high.

jaycurrie said...

Dear Lord, has no one any pity for the poor bum?

There he is, cap out, trying to earn an easy buck and all of a sudden some witless git of indeterminate sex drops two bucks and expects bum chat. the man has a hangover and is, after all, sitting on the sidewalk. Does he need this BS?

"Yup, life's been a bit hard but I'm getting it together...You. You look as if you could use some help. Your friend too."

Pathetic all round.

The Cranky Insomniac said...

Y'know, I read that story earlier today, and I'm still trying to figure out how in the world Alexis didn't look at his (or her) friend and say, "You didn't buy yourself anything, asshole: that was my money."

I can't even get into discussing it beyond that - the sheer chutzpah of the guy just blows me away.

I would, however, love to know where Patterico gets his coke so cheap...

Hollywood Wags said...

Maybe they were talkin Stillers football dahn dere in dahntahn over a cold Arn City beer.

rosignol said...

The person is liberal because they wrote the letter to the New York Times, duh. The other guy is liberal because, like all liberals, they only give to the poor with other people's money.

It's funny because it's true. :-)

Michael said...

This story, sans padding, is just a description of a classical 3-way con - each conning the other.

Goesh said...

Mr./Ms. Thorley, when one sticks a thumb out while on the side of a road and gets a ride, there is a mutual element of risk once the vehicle stops and the hiker enters. One doesn't enter the vehicle and say, " I'm not a deranged killer out to rob and murder you and take your car - you can trust me." It just doesn't work that way. Back then I had long hair and was scruffy from being on the road and I carried a sheath knife on my belt for purposes of camping and God forbid, self defense. Times were indeed different back then. Nobody in their right mind would pick up such a person these days. Anyway, I felt an obligation to put people at ease because I was not and am not a docile looking person, but yes, I knew too that a prodigal son story could well provide some free food as well. If you picked up a hiker would you rather hear him say he was returning home after being in the school of hard knocks or that he was just out of prison with no place to go and in need of a fix? Few people will readily admit they are just a plain bum with no real place to go. I did not carry a sign that read, "Prodigal son needs ride back to Mom and Dad". Faking a limp to get a ride on a back road with few cars is no different than advertising toothpaste guranteed to make you sexy and attractive. Likewise when I begged on Sunday, I simply asked "Alms - alms?" and shook a cup at prosperous looking people. I admit I tried to whine a bit with my voice and would sort of stoop myself over a bit in an effort to look pitiful but I was hungry and did not impose myself on the good people in any way. One would not go begging at a Mission or at a church where all the cars are second-hand looking and the church filled with blue collar type working people. Life is naught but a big barter system, Thorley. Only the Lord knows how many prosperous people who put a dollar in my alms cup said to themselves, " there but by the grace of God goes I." It was a mutual service and I graciously thanked them and on occasion, yes I did do some work for a meal too. It's a true story, Ms. Ann.

Oligonicella said...

Whenever I'm with someone who starts talking on the phone or ignoring me to talk to someone else, I simply walk away and let them find me on their own later. Screw anyone (even my brother) who's that shallow.

g said...

My problem is that I can't STOP people from conversing with me!

Occam's Beard said...

Alexis should have borrowed $2 from his "friend" and given that to the bum.

Game, set, match...

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

...one male would probably razz another male for the rest of the day about getting his $2 back. Unless that male were daft, which apparently is the case.

I've had many interesting conversations with homeless guys for free. One in particular I recall from Brooklyn Heights had many fine points to make about the Kennedy assassination. I think I'll write to the New York Times to share.

AST said...

If this were told by a religious coservative, it would have been sneered at by the Times. But liberals are sincere and truly virtuous while conservatives are hypocrites trying to impress others people with how much holier than thou they are.

As far as "buying" conversation, I wonder what stock tips he got for his money.

Kim du Toit said...

If a so-called "friend" borrowed money from me to give to a beggar, I'd charge him f*cking interest -- and usurious interest if he insulted me by insinuating that some bum's conversation was better than mine.

JM Hanes said...

You'd know we're talking liberals here, regardless of venue, when the guy who is being treated to the object lesson in this little parable claims, "I told him that if I knew it was to give out free money, I wouldn't have given it to him."

I doubt that's what you'd hear from either liberal or conservative, but it is what a liberal thinks a conservative would say.