Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On the Beggar's Art

Beggars were ubiquitous in Mexico, even more so than in today's metastasizing urban sprawl.   They crouched in dirty doorways holding up scrawny hands and pathetically mumbling things like "Ten piedad por amor a nuestra santísima Señora...

They mumbled these mantras so continuously that begging became a sort of meditation, which in a way i suppose it is.   kyrie eleison...

Among beggars there was a sort of rush toward the bottom to see who could be more positively pathetic and wretched.  One wonders if they held a convention somewhere to hand out awards for the "best costume" and "grimmest disability" or "lacrimose lament."

There was one woman who had attained a sort of fame in this respect.  Her "post" was somewhere in the vicinity of Avenida Juarez and Niño Perdido - in a well concoursed older part of downtown.  Almost everyone had passed her at one point or another or so it seemed. Oh wretched art though among women....

And then one day an article appeared in the paper exposing her game.  The woman was indeed a beggar, but she brought in a hefty income.  She had a bank account and sent her children to a private school. 
It was of course classic, like the Chaplin or Keystone movie where the veteran amputee on the sidewalk, gets up and stretches his tucked legs at the end of the day.  And like the audience at a Chaplin movie, people read the article, laughed and went on to talk about other good begging acts they had run across.

There was the sense around the table that if you had fallen for the woman's act you had been suckered, which was of course true.  But, at the same time, no one felt that she had committed a cheat or a fraud, which was also true.  After all she was a beggar and that's what beggars do. She could hardly be blamed for being good at her "profession" -- and given the litanies involved it was a profession.

This was a very different attitude from that which prevails in the United States what with all the self-righteous snarling about welfare cheats.  No one felt that our now-famous beggar had been a cheat.  At what exact degree of hunger does misery cease to be a deceptive act?  How many rags are "too many"?

Well she could of gone out and got an honest job....

That refrain which flaps in the north like so many stripes in the wind would simply not have occurred to anyone at the table.  After all, the poor are poor because they are poor. They have no capital: no education, no competence, no skills, nothing to sell for money.   If she could have gotten a job she would have... if jobs were to be had.   Who can trace the what's, why's and wherefore's, except to say,

To he who hath more shall be given; to he who hath not even that which he hath shall be taken away.

There will always be poor because people are born without and because there are never enough jobs for all.   No one in Mexico discounted the value of hard work or talent. But neither did anyone beguile himself with the canard that these alone were sufficient for "success."  Everyone understood that, at bottom, any one person's success is always someone else's gift. There is no such thing as an "honest job." We are all beggars after a fashion.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Cum vix iustus sit securus?
 Rex tremendæ maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,

 God saves freely,
as even the just are in need of mercy

But this humble circumspection is beyond those who feed upon a hill, and who feel cheated by someone else's need.