The other day I was visiting London for reasons which must have seemed good at the time, and as I was walking along the street a man sitting on the pavement in very raggedy clothes looked up at me and said: ‘Got any spare change?’
Well, it's always nice to be talked to by anyone in London, I suppose, but it did seem a strange question. (A bit like those weird questions you see on cards in phone boxes in London, such as "Do you want to be punished ?" or "Have you been a bad boy ?". Honestly, I worry about Londoners sometimes.)
I felt the rattle of coins in my pocket and said, ‘Yes, thanks’.
(I was somewhat relieved, actually. Like many men, I keep far too much in my pockets, because I haven't got a handbag, and occasionally this wears a hole in one of them. If it's a jacket pocket, the objects in my pocket start to drop deep into the lining. If the hole appears in a trouser pocket, the first sign is usually a slither of coins down my right leg, inside the trouser, leading to a small cascade of money from ankle level most of which goes on the floor but a little of which usually ends up in my sock or shoe. It is almost always highly embarrassing though on the other hand I have sometimes been very relieved to find a bit of money in my shoe.)
The man sitting on the pavement looked quite pleased to learn that I had some spare cash. He thought about it for a moment.
‘Can I have it?’ he asked.
I thought about this for a moment.
‘No,’ I said.
‘Because I need it.’
‘Then it's not spare change, is it?’ said the man. ‘I asked you if you had any spare change, and you said you had. Now you're telling me that it's not spare after all. If you need it, it's not spare. You've changed your story. You've shifted the goal posts.’
‘You've got a point,’ I conceded.
‘Then can I have it?’
I thought rapidly for a good reason.
‘Because I might need it. I am a stranger to London and I have heard that people get mugged pretty often, and muggers get very angry if the victim has no money on them, and beat them up. So I might need this money.’
‘Have you got a wallet?’
‘The muggers will take your wallet. They won't worry with your change. Let me look after it for you...’
I decided to try another tack.
‘I am following the government directive which has asked us not to give to beggars but to donate directly to a charity.’
‘I know about this directive,’ said the man on the pavement. ‘And since you heard about it, have you given to a charity instead of to a beggar?’
‘No,’ I admitted.
‘Then I think I can help you,’ said the beggar. ‘For I have listened to that very same government directive and I have become an agent for half a dozen leading national charities. You may donate directly to me and I will handle the donation for you.’
‘Can you handle donations to Shelter?’ I said.
‘One of my favourites,’ he said.
I got out my cheque book and pen.
‘Not cheques,’ he said.
‘Not cheques?’ I said.
‘We prefer cash,’ he said.
‘We?’ I said.
‘Me and Shelter,’ he said. ‘In-house study by me and Shelter has shown that cheques lead to too much bureaucracy, and paperwork. Cash can be activated immediately.’
‘You mean, you'll spend it straightaway?’
‘We prefer to say “put the cash to work”, rather than “spend it”, but yes, that's the idea.’
I put my hand in my pocket. All I could find was a bunch of keys jammed in the opening of a small, new hole in my pocket. Any change I had must have fallen through it. I became aware of a cold sensation against my foot.
‘Just a moment,’ I said, and took my shoe off. Inside there was a pound coin and a 50p coin. I offered them to him. He hesitated.
‘It won't smell,’ I said. ‘Socks fresh on this week.’
‘It's not that I'm worried about,’ he said. ‘It's just that anyone who has to keep his cash in his shoe must be worse off than I am in. Look, take this...’
And he handed back the 50p coin, keeping the £1 for himself.
The Independent Tuesday Nov 7 2000