Thursday, November 17, 2005

There is no need to bring God into this transaction

It took me exactly one evening commute to hit on something to rant about. Actually, this been driving me nuts for months.

Backstory: I recently fled to Oakland after ten years of city living. In exchange for cool things like more space, a big ol' garden and zero parking hassles, I got an hour and a half commute to work in SF every day, which gives me plenty of time to work up my bile. (Life is but a series of compromises.) And, like any blue-stater worth her salt who can't afford a Prius, I use public transportation -- train and bus. Because I choose to frequent a station a little further from my bus line, but where I can be assured of a seat on the train, every evening I bravely traverse the Fourth Circle of Hell (that's the one reserved for the Avaricious and Prodigal, for those of you too lazy to Google it) otherwise known as Union Square.

Union Square is the glittering market central of San Francisco: it's got Tiffany's, Burberry, Macy's, Neiman Marcus, The Disney (TM) Store, Bang & Olufsen, a Mac Store, a M.A.C. store and a Cheesecake Factory (when you're starving and/or need an expensive but stiff drink after all that fabulous shopping). It's got pigeons and some kind of historical monument. At this time of year, it's also got gorgeous window displays, a monolithic Christmas tree and an enormous menorah. So what's not to like? Something for everyone, right?

Well, at times it does seem like everyone is there. At 5:45 pm, Union Square is ground zero for the population explosion that is the city. It's jammed with pampered stay-at-home-shoppers, frantic pass-through commuters, well-heeled tourists headed for the theatah, slow-moving fat suburbanites eating pizza, an infinite and colorful variety of college kids with backpacks, and knots of disaffected teenagers with nothing better to do than stand around waiting for their pants to fall down. Let's just say the place is crowded.

And where there are crowds spending money, there are panhandlers working those crowds. Now, I'm not here to rant about panhandlers in general -- I get that the economy sucks and some people just have it rough. I treat them politely; even if I'm not in the emotional or financial mood to rummage for change or hand out smokes, I usually say, "Sorry, not tonight," or some equivalent that acknowledges their existence. I know people (some better than I'd like) who have done productive work in the spare-change biz. They're just like other people, doing whatever it is they have to do to get through the day.

But there's This. One. Guy. I walk by him every night, and every night he makes me want to smack him. He's generally clean-ish and polite, and relatively non-aggressive. He's exactly the kind of guy I'd give some loose change or a cigarette to, except for one niggling issue -- his approach. Every night as I pass him, I hear his mantra: "Spare some change? God bless you. Spare some change? God bless you. Spare some change? God bless you." And it makes me cranky.

Call me touchy; call me un-Christian (both would technically be true). Say whatever you like -- maybe I'm turning into one of those knee-jerk liberals who wastes time campaigning to stamp out having a "Merry Christmas" in favor of culturally aware "Happy Holidays." (In truth, I was a big fan of last year's Virgin ad campaign that wished us all a "Happy Chaunachristmakwaanzastice" or somesuch, but that leaves out Ramadan, so even it's no good.) However, I seriously doubt those kind of people would have to fight the urge to kick this guy on a daily basis.

Fundamentally, I just don't understand what religion, a personal and various and heated construct at the best of times, has to do with a simple financial transaction like spare-changing. Maybe "God bless you" is as American as apple pie and the frantic consumerism of the crowds around us, but it just doesn't work as a marketing tool for this particular demographic. It's the presumption that bothers me. I give this guy a quarter, and he passes on a secondhand blessing from his imaginary friend and makes like that's a good thing. A fair trade. How does he know I'm not a devout Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a gleeful baby-eating Satanist wanna-be who just might kick him? Does he imagine these foolsgold "blessings" will sway me into emptying my pockets if I hadn't planned to already? ("Oh, goody! For being so generous, I'm getting a treat from the nice man in the sky!") Or is it a veiled suggestion that I'm not a good Christian if I don't give, so God will never bless me? (Okay, now I'm just being paranoid.)

Doesn't he realize that some -- perhaps many -- people might be put off by his narrow, prescriptive view of the universe as run by his god, no matter how well-meant or commonplace?

Okay, maybe he doesn't realize. Maybe I expect too much from my fellow travelers in the dark wood. But seriously, a simple "Have a good night," or "Thank you" would suffice. He could even say "Bless you" -- that at least sounds like it's from the heart and is nondenominational to boot. I say let's separate church and commerce -- if he did, I might even give him some change.

Next up: Don't even get me started on those perky Scientologists a little further down the street. WTF?

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