If you’ve ever lived in New York City, as I did for most of my life, you know how it feels when a panhandler announces himself to a crowded subway car. Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention …
First comes sympathy, then a shameful twinge of resentment that the tranquility of your ride has been rudely interrupted by a fellow human being’s starvation. Then comes a sense of low-grade alarm.
Most panhandlers are harmless and move on to the next car after they’ve received a few donations. But to arrive at a state where one is reduced to begging for money on the subway usually involves mental illness or drug use or both, as everyone present is keenly aware. You know that the man before you is probably in an altered state of one sort or another.
And people in altered states, especially those with nothing to lose, are unpredictable.