The Boy on the Naples Train
I decided to do Pompeii as a post on its own because this seemed like such a significant happening at the time that I felt it deserved a detailed write-up.
Pompeii was pretty dull in itself, especially after Ephesis with Grace last year, but was worth the train ride. I didn't see however the plaster people which was a big point of going, because we had to catch the train back. What was particularly important about this trip for me was the train journey.
Naples station was full of beggars. What in retrospect struck me particularly about these beggars were the number of women, especially those with young children in tow, sometimes babies. It has only occurred to me as of now the disproportionate amount of male beggars there are in the UK. Maybe UK society is less sympathetic towards the stronger sex, who knows.
The train was packed to the point where we couldn't move. Two of my friends were sexually harassed et the stray hands of a smelly Italian man, who clearly thought a lot of himself. The girls ended up hiding behind the guys to keep away from this asshole. I’ve never seen anything like it apart from maybe the 11X bus on a busy school night. Somewhere in the two hours of this cramped sweaty endurance test, we had out first train busker.
She was an elderly woman, with a small kid in tow. She had a cheap old accordion, and she clearly had no idea where to play it. Through trial and error and hours of riding the trains, she had found a button and a set of keys with which she could make a sorry excuse for a tune with. She squeezed up and down the train as the small boy went around with a little cup. I put a euro or two in. It genuinely made my day when he gave me a fist pump and a hi five. This kid made my day.
On the way back an experience so strange happened that it has left an impression on me that will never go away.
A boy and his father walked onto the train, the boy with a drum and his father with an old trolley with a speaker on it. He triggered an mp3 player, and cranked up the music real loud. This tiny tiny boy began to drum. I disagreed with his age with my friend later, I thought he was younger, he thought a little older, and being skin and bone he may have been right. The kid looked starving and so did his dad. Still, he can't have been younger than seven.
He kicked ass. He was amazing, he had natural rhythm and flourish, the marks of a natural performer at an age when it rarely shows that well. His eyes however looked tired and betrayed the fact that he'd been on the trains all day. His Dad shook a tambourine, but couldn't hold a beat, let alone a rhythm, and it was clearly just a token gesture of performance.
The boy drummed for another three songs, which were long and loud and pissed off everyone in the carriage. The boy would have done better playing alone. Afterwards he looked up at his father, who said to him in Italian 'You know what you have to do – take the cup around'. The kid was shy, but he did it anyway for his Dad.
The kid didn't come to me. He didn't ask me. I wanted to approach him, but something held me back. Here was my thought process:
a) This child shouldn't have to work
b) His Dad was pushy, and will take all the money he's earned at the end of the day.
- That kid is scared, tired and unhappy. It's not fair.
Nobody on the train gave him a cent. For some reason my feet were glued to the floor. Some deep inbuilt etiquette, some social fear, the same one that stopped me buying lunch for a homeless man in Greece put the brakes on a naturally good gesture. Here was my thought process.
a) That kid was amazing.
b) He's playing to the hardest crowd anyone could play to.
- I know what it's like to be a performing monkey in front of people who don't want to know – especially if they're all glaring at you. At 24 it can break me down emotionally. This child is having to deal with continuous rejection at the age of below seven.
- If I give this kid money, at least he'll eat tonight. He'll have to work anyway, money or no money...
Then he was gone, him and his dad hopped off at the station, with my feet still glued. I watched the slums and shanty towns rush by the window and I ached with guilt. I’m earning more money than I ever have done in my life and I couldn't put fifty cents in a cup for a starving kid. I’m a wanker. There, it's said. I know that boy will never read these words, probably never even knew I existed, but If I could say something to him, this is what I'd say.
You're amazing. You're a real star, you work through the pain and fear for your family. I could see the fear in your eyes as that train full of people glared at you, but you played on and your held your head high and you passed your cup around. In a grown up world full of rules and conventions, you weren't shown the appreciation you deserved, maybe you never are. It wasn't your fault, it was the grown ups who had their priorities fucked up. But somewhere in the world you have a fan, who loves your playing, and if he'd pulled himself together you'd have had twenty Euros in your cup.
Some of you might be reading this and thinking that I’m pretty soft. Maybe too soft for travelling around the world, where poverty is a daily encounter and something that is to be come to terms with. Well, I say to you that if a child working, or a begger with a baby in her arms doesn't give you pain, then you're dehumanising yourself to cope with a broken world. The minute that poverty becomes an acceptable fact of life to you, you become part of the problem. That's the kind of thinking that lets condos and shanty towns share the same beach.
Here's a conversation I had recently with a colleague. I gave a coin to an old wizened lady, begging.
Him: Did you just give money to that beggar?
Him: Bad idea!
Him: I used to give money to beggars, now I know better. If they have two hands they can work.
Me: Well, I disagree.
Cowardly me. What I should have said was this:
Me: 'That analogy is stupid. It ignores the concept of unemployment which has to exist for capitalism to function. Also, what about the mentally ill, or disabled? Have you never depended on the charity of another?'
Another colleague told me this:
Her: Lots of beggars fake it anyway – they pretend to be poor, but have iPhones and stuff under their blankets.
Again, I kept quiet. What I should have said was this.
Me: That's crazy. If they're hidden how would you know about them? Anyway, the whole benefits system works on the internet now – surely it makes sense that the first thing a homeless person would need would be internet connectivity? Also, even if these people do exist, why should you let the genuine beggars suffer?
Another colleague told me this:
Him: Didn't you hear about that beggar who was actually really rich, and drove a Mercedes? He had a really good job, he just did it because he was greedy?
Me: That's the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Well, at least I got it right once.
These are first world defences against a sick worldwide wealth gap. Nobody chooses to be a homeless beggar, to live in the freezing cold and demean themselves to every person who walks by them just to earn enough to carry on. Begging to people every day would kill every last ounce of ego someone possesses, and how do they pull themselves together and get a job?
I think everyone who grew up in a first world country has some degree of 'fat wallet guilt' when they look the living conditions of a world of which massive chunks are still below the poverty line. There's two ways to deal with this – come up with some crappy false logic chain to justify your wealth, and your greed in not giving it to someone in need – or to give some tiny act of charity to try and sooth that guilt a little bit. The charity probably isn't going to get rid of your guilt, and it probably isn't going to solve the problems of the person in need, but it will help. The only alternative is becoming an ass-hole, so probably best to embrace it.
Like the butterfly effect, one small good deed can spread out indefinitely, like falling dominoes throughout the world. Sooner of later, somewhere along the line it will come back to the boy on the Naples train.