I keep my eyes on his. My conscience squirms like a worm that’s had its tail cut off or a beetle on its back. Before I know it, he pulls out the Kinder card, “Ich habe Kinder und wir haben nichts zum essen.” He says this while raising his hand to his mouth with his fingers squeezed together at a point, like we’re taught when we’re babies is the sign for food.
A lavish plate of breakfast sits before me – sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, a dollop of hummus, blue cheese, olives and a basket of Turkish flat bread. It could feed several of those kids he’s talking about. I’m sitting at a Naschmarkt café on a Saturday morning and the sun is shining.
Life was feeling good until he came along. Until my privileged existence – that allows me to spend €10 Euros on a Turkish breakfast along with three coffees and read about the Gaza strip in the newspaper all morning from the comfort of peaceful Vienna – was disturbed. Like somebody has jumped into a still river at dawn. It annoys me and makes me feel like a terrible human being.
I shake my head and let out a soft, ‘nein, Entschuldigung.’ My conscience is now kicking and screaming and taking a knife to its throat.
He tries again. I don’t blame him. His hands look like he’s lived while mine look like they’ve just been washing dishes. But they haven’t, for I have a dishwasher.
This time the "Bitte" is drawn out and comes from within him, whiny like a shopping trolley with a busted wheel. I say "Nein" with more oomph and he’s off – to try the next person in the packed café. The speakers of the café are playing ‘Sun is shining’ – the remix version from Bob Marley and Funkstar de Luxe.
The sun certainly is shining. If only I could get rid of this uncomfortable indigestion. It’s not from the food. He was the third in the matter of three hours – surely I’m not expected to give money to all of them. Even the church locks its doors at night.
Anybody living in this city knows this experience. We talk about it like it’s something politicians should solve. “Something needs to be done,” we say, until we forget about this particular inconvenience in our lives and move on to the next in our conversations.
Ban begging is a buzz word for Austrian politicians. It’s something they are trying to solve as their advisers tell them it’s a hot topic amongst the voters. Salzburg, Tyrol and Graz have tried to outlaw the act of one human being asking another for money.
When Graz briefly succeeded in banning begging there was an outcry. Heads were shaken to the tune of human rights.
But if we look at why Graz’s politicians were so determined to ban begging, we realise deep down inside our society was nodding its head in approval. It was populist politics. The majority want it.
Their conscience is being challenged on a daily basis. The microcosm of their small worlds, in their small European city into which they were lucky to be born is being ruptured. Their breakfasts are being disturbed.
We have forgotten that the only thing that has us sitting at our cafés sipping on mélanges is pure random chance and luck. We already won the lottery when we were born in the right country, where lottery tickets are sold. But the fact that we feel uncomfortable when asked for money by a beggar is understandable.
We grew up on a diet of sugared cereal and Vicky the Viking. Our behaviour is conditioned to the house we grew up in. But it’s not justifiable. For we are first and foremost human beings… and so are those who beg.
It’s a certain kind of fear that fills us when faced with these people asking us for money. It comes out as annoyance, and perhaps we try to justify it, but no matter how much we try to justify it to each other, we cannot entirely silence the small, still voice of our conscience.
But if we look at who most beggars are, we can perhaps understand why the fear is there. Their skins are a little darker than ours, they’re from the East. Let’s not kid ourselves – this is why begging is now a problem and has gained the attention of politicians. Xenophobia can be seen from space.
It’s always been there – begging. It’s one of the oldest arts in the world. Perhaps even a relative of yours has done it during times of war. But these people are from abroad.
It’s all organised, a friend of mine insists. “They come in on buses from Romania everyday.”
I tell him I don’t give a shit. I ask him where’s the difference between the beggar with a cup in hand and the professional ones who wear Amnesty international uniforms and block your way on Mariahilferstrasse begging on somebody else’s behalf.
I once had one grab me by the arm in an attempt to stop me so they could give me their charity marketing spiel.
That has never happened to me with a beggar without the uniform. Neither is wrong…they are just a reality of our modern societies.
And this reality is the following – begging is part of any society and will always be there. They didn’t tell you when they spoke about this pretty idea of ‘globalisation’ that not only would business become globalised, make us richer, and allow Austrian and German banks to pop up everywhere in Eastern Europe – but there would also be side effects.
They didn’t tell you that in the fine print it read – “may cause economic migration and an increase in beggars from abroad.”
Globalisation means begging can grow in the richest of cities just as much as Coca Cola can be found in the poorest of dirt road towns in Laos.
It is not something to solve as if it’s a stain we have to remove with a spray and a wash cloth. It has its place in today’s society. Whether it is right or wrong. And its place in society will swell as the wealthy’s bank accounts swell and war rages in far off places. In a globalised world, these places are not so far away.
No matter how hard you scrub, this stain will not be removed. It’s a reflection on a society that’s malfunctioning – that is fundamentally flawed. I’m not a capitalist, a communist or a socialist. I have no one economic or political doctrine; none of them have been made for human consumption.
But I understand that there is a reason why somebody kneels on a scrap of cardboard on the street in winter, asking for money with a Styrofoam McDonald‘s cup.