Desperation Act

By: George Sorrentini



For anonymity purposes, no names will be mentioned.


It happened early, Thursday morning on December 20, 2018. I went to my local, Bronx college around 8:30am to submit my students’ grades and finalize the necessary paperwork to finish off my stressful, Fall ’18 semester. As I handed in the grades and gave in all of my documents to the beloved secretary of the English Department, I figured my duty was done, so it was time to head home.

After running some personal errands, before heading to the train station, I realized that it was past 11am and I needed to go home to relax and plan out what gifts I should give my friends and co-workers before Christmas arrives. Waiting for the “4” train on the above-ground subway platform seemed daunting considering that the cold was formidable and all I thought about was going home and warming up.

Fortunately, the “4” came. As I sat in the “4” heading home, at one Bronx stop, a former student, who dropped my English class in the middle of that semester, boarded. I saw that student, but he did not see me because that subway car was a bit packed. Then, my former student did something that completely caught me by surprise.

He made his way to the far end of the subway car and positioned himself in front of the subway doors that are intended for “Emergency Use Only.” He, then, introduced himself and sang a song, just so commuters can give him their spare change.

My initial thought was that he was probably doing that out of desperation. I don’t know what went wrong in his life where this lanky, 20-something, African-American man wearing a thin, black Peacoat and dark, round sunglasses resorted to performing on a subway to peddle for pocket change, but I was speechless at what I saw. I cannot believe that my former student was singing inside a train!

When he finished his “performance”, he snaked his way around the straphangers asking for money. Sadly, not a single person gave him any. Then, he was snaking towards my direction.  I immediately hunched over and cloaked my head with my green, Adidas hoodie and grey, Yankees cap, so he would get the message that I was ignoring him. It worked; he overlooked me. He bypassed me and continued asking those who were sitting and standing for money, until he wound up on the opposite end of the subway car. There, he stood motionless, not saying a word, in front of the other subway doors that are for “Emergency Use Only.”

The next stop arrived where he thanked everyone, despite their refusal to give him anything, and quickly exited the train. The second the subway doors shut, I arose from my hood and hat, like a turtle from its shell, still processing what in the world I just saw. While I do admit he was a good R&B singer, I did not give him any money.

Two days passed and I just had to tell some of my friends about my “subway” student. Importantly, I wanted to hear their feedback about my abrupt decision. I was confronted with mixed reactions.

One of my good friends happens to be a Venezuelan-American social worker and he firmly believed my action was just. According to him, since he was my student, if I gave him loose change that will foster some form of dependency where whenever that student sees me, he’ll incessantly ask me for money. He further proclaimed, “You don’t know what he’ll use that money for. He could be using it to buy drugs. So take it from me, you did the right thing.” Perhaps he was right. After all, he is a professional in his field and I really did not know what my former student would use that money for. Based on what my social worker friend said, in opening my wallet, was I inadvertently fueling his drug fix?

A female friend and fellow adjunct English instructor who opposed my decision strongly declared that if someone is in desperate need, you have to help. People who sing, put on a show, or even beg for money are obviously in despair and have to swallow their pride, just to ask for money over and over again to get by. Those who sing, dance, and even do gymnastics on the train are giving their few talents they have to get some recognition.  Oftentimes, they need cash.  In rare cases, they just need someone to tell them, “Hey, you’re good.” Put yourself in their position, so you can fully understand that it is not easy to come back to the same place time and time again, just to be denied time and time again.  Even more, it is heartbreaking to see some people having to make a living pleading for spare change. This kind of life is not easy and it is not so simple to just “get a job.”

The question beckons: Why did I not give him any money? I am still unclear about that myself. Perhaps I froze due to shock? Maybe my mindset was that a lot of people do this on the train, and so I was “used to it”, or “fed up with it”, or jaded.  Maybe I did not want my student to see me – that I saw him – for fear he (and I) would be embarrassed. Was conformity a factor? Since I did not see anyone donate, that might have swayed me not to give as well. It may also possibly be the expression, “You made your bed, now lie in it”, if you know what I mean. I could’ve been the lone hero inside that subway car who tipped him for his singing, when no one else dared, but I wasn’t. Who knows? Perhaps my meager coins might have helped him. All I do know is that I made a rush decision and stuck to it.

Until this very day, I wonder what became of my Fall ‘18 student. Added to that, I still wonder if I did the right thing by not giving him the few nickels, dimes, and two quarters that were in my back, denim pocket. If a situation like the one I disclosed happened to you, would you donate? Would you give your disposable income to someone you know who is performing on a train to (perhaps) survive?