The sock man shuffles down the sidewalk, black plastic garbage bag in one hand, packages of new socks in the other. “Socks, socks,” he mumbles. He doesn’t cry his wares loudly like the hat peddler in the story, who matches wits with mischievous monkeys. Rather you can barely hear him. You can tell by his sagging posture and painful gait he’s in poor health. His eyes are rheumy, his tongue coated with white film. If you buy socks from him, he nearly weeps with gratitude, and it breaks your heart.
The sock man has haunted my neighborhood for a decade or more. I’ve bought socks a few times, over the years. The other day I bought a package, paying four times what I’d have paid in a store. A deli owner, outside his shop for a cigarette break, witnessed the exchange and smiled at me as I passed. I smiled back, though I’m not sure if the deli man laughed with or at me. We city dwellers prefer our street charity to be quick, done on the sly, because we’re always worried there’s a grift afoot. No one wants to be a sucker (or seen as one), and more often than not, I walk past panhandlers without a second glance. That’s harder to do with my daughter in tow—she wants to give money to everyone with a sign or a paper cup. I want to encourage her compassion but also teach her to be prudent. Some panhandlers are hucksters, and you can’t always tell who really needs your help.
Yet even as I drag my daughter past the wheelchair-bound woman with the bent coffee cup, I think, isn’t it better to risk giving loose change to a huckster than ignore those who really need it? I worry about how the pendulum of social conscience has swung toward Victorian notions of the poor being so because they deserve it. We don’t sentence poor people to workhouses or debtors prison anymore, but our society increasingly criminalizes poverty by disproportionately arresting low-income people and leaving them in jail for a year or longer without trial. The poor are also despised for being dirty and lazy—the same labels used for millennia to diminish the humanity of the underprivileged. The sock man who shuffles about my neighborhood stinks, and I wouldn’t care to sit next to him on the subway. He’s also clearly exhausted and in pain. I’m sure if he had the opportunity, he would relish a long soak in a hot bath. And anyone who spends all day on his feet selling socks to passersby cannot be lazy.
I grew up believing we are the makers of our own destiny and my success in life would depend on how hard I worked to achieve my goals. I still believe this is true, for those of us lucky enough to be reared in stable, financially secure families. An awful lot of people don’t have that support, and only the extraordinary few can rise out of poverty on their own. The rest are left out in the cold on empty streets.
I have no way to know which cardboard sign carrier is “legitimately” poor and which is a huckster, and perhaps I should be a little less stingy with my loose change when I pass someone with his hand out. The other day, as I walked away from the sock man and exchanged smiles with the deli owner, the image crossed my mind of the sock man coming into his home, shedding his beaten-down demeanor, and dancing a jig while tossing greenbacks in the air. My smile grew broader as I pictured this, because it’s absurd. It would also lighten my heart if the sock man knew a moment of joy, because I think he deserves it.