“I don’t have” or “I don’t want”?

2013-04-30 23:45

I was in traffic on my way home from running my Monday errands, singing my idols worthy rendition of ‘I am sexy and I know it” when I saw something that made me think. It was the open-palm shrug we drivers give to beggars to get them to move on to the next sucker. Although I had seen it a million times before, and I myself am guilty of doing the same, it made me stop my epic sing-along performance.

The open-palm shrug- It’s intended to indicate that I don’t have anything while I drive in an air-conditioned car with a compartment jingling with loose change designated for car guards. One day I happened to catch a glimpse of a driver as he expressed his supposed lack of change which was inevitably followed by a quick, determined attempt to avoid further eye contact. I must admit, I have been guilty of the same act. The few times I have mustered up the courage to engage the beggar, I’ve been left feeling deflated. She truly knew what I meant when I said I don’t have, I don’t want.

It makes me wonder if it is better to just come outright and say it, or should we continue this game of charades? Would a homeless person appreciate my honesty? A friend once told me that sometimes all they really want is acknowledgement of their existence, to be treated human beings. Society has taught us to treat them as social pariahs. I remember in high school, a friend would get annoyed with me for not ignoring a begging teenager outside the club. She didn’t want them to be around us.

Even on a national level this kind of thinking is prevalent. Not so long ago Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg municipalities were accused of hiding the homeless away to impress international guests for the World Cup. Naturally, they denied, denied, denied.

Before I get attacked for lacking morals because I didn't want to give, think back to the many times in your car when you felt no one was watching, no one was judging  and you snuck a bite of that indulgent fatty something to treat yourself for your healthy lifestyle. Although a relatively trivial scenario, it is similar to this case. I was raised to give. I have given in various ways and will continue to do so. However in my car - my sanctuary slash idols stage - there are times when I simply don’t want to give some loose change for whatever reason. Sometimes it may be that I would much rather give food than money, or I don’t want to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and my withholding might lead to their finding a more constructive income. Granted these reasons reek of pretension and neo-liberal naivety, but the question still stands: should I give the old faithful open-palm shrug or be honest?

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