I had gotten paid Friday afternoon. It wasn’t a great deal of money (unless, of course, you consider it payment for writing stories, and then it would have been incredibly generous), but it was in cash and more than I normally carry around in my pocket. I’m not allowed to open a bank account in Germany (wrong type of visa), so I wanted to put the money into my son’s university account in Munich, where I’m sure it is going to end up anyway. He checked on the Internet and found his downtown bank was open until 5:30 on Friday, so we arranged to meet there.
By the time I got downtown at 5:00, Brian had already learned the Internet information was wrong and that the bank closed, like most banks in Germany, at 3:45 on Fridays. This is consistent with the general German economic theory of closing everything just when there is a good chance of making some money, but it was still a surprise to me. I don’t know, maybe Germans get paid on Thursday, when the banks keep late hours and close at 5:30.
There is no way, as far as Brian and I could tell, to make a machine deposit to a German bank. You need to be there in person between the hours of 10:30 and 11:00 on Thursday of an odd numbered week, or whatever the rule is, I’m not very clear about it. Anyway, not when it’s reasonably convenient to get to a bank. (I’m trying to suspend my American attitude while I am here, but I’m beginning to see why six weeks of vacation is standard in Germany. You would use half the time going to the bank and getting an occasional haircut.)
The long and short of it was, I had purchased a one-day U-Bahn ticket and I had more than the usual amount of cash in my pocket, so I decided to use the ticket and wander around the Marienplatz downtown, looking for a likely restaurant. I wasn’t particularly hungry, and I dislike crowded restaurants with their thick smoke, so I was just wandering around looking in shop windows, waiting for the dinner rush to thin out. I was half-heartedly looking for an Indian restaurant I had seen once on a walk, but beyond that I was just enjoying the night air.
I passed a church and heard Bach being played on a pipe organ. I peeked in the window and listened for a few minutes, then moved on. I had traveled quite a distance from the Marienplatz, and I had just noticed the sidewalk crowds had thinned considerably. I had just decided I would turn around at the end of this block and go back the way I had come, when I was approached by a poorly dressed and unshaved man.
He asked me something in German. I replied that I didn’t speak much German. He asked me, in English, what languages I spoke. “Uh, English. Just English,” I said. I wasn’t going to get into the little bit of pathetic Spanish I used to speak. He said he lived on the street and could use some money, could I give him some. He spoke with a French accent, so I presume he might have been French, or possibly Swiss. In any case, it was clear that even the homeless in Europe speak more languages than I do. This is really getting to bother me, so I reached into my pocket and gave him a €2 coin, partial payment for American ignorance.
I have a hard time walking past homeless people with extra money in my pocket and knowledge of all the things I own that I don’t in any way, shape, or form need, for God’s sake. And yet I read the Chamber of Commerce literature that advises you are not doing the homeless any favors giving them money. In Anchorage, in April, there were about five Alaska Natives per block looking for money and a sign in every store saying don’t give them any, you are doing them harm! But hell, I’ve been in situations a time or two in my life when the bottom of a bottle looked like a pretty good place to hang out, given the circumstances. In San Francisco, the women come out on the streets with their dirty children. I suppose it could be a ploy, but even if it is, those folks seem to need the money more than I do. So I usually end up giving them whatever change I have in my pocket, two or three dollars, usually. Occasionally, I’ve given a guy a $5 or a $10 bill, when I’ve felt particularly guilty, or I thought he was really hungry.
This guy looked dirty, but not particularly hungry. And I didn’t get any sense of danger from him, so I started to chat a bit. He was interested in amateur radio, and if he got a little money together every now and then, he went to an Internet cafe and did some research on the topic. Say what!? The homeless people I’ve talked to in the US don’t seem to have much schooling. This guy was sounding like a PhD in physics, talking about frequency modulators and decoding radio signals, and what not. Well, could be. I studied physics. I could see some of those guys I went to school with ending up here, to tell you the truth. Not the most social people you ever met in your life, some of them.
I mentioned telescopes and adaptive optics. “Oh, oh, oh. Wait a minute,” he says, and starts digging in the bag he is carrying. I look in there. It is his complete office. Folders and notebooks, apparently color coded by subject and date. “You live where?,” I ask him. “On the streets,” he replies, “for 20 years.” “Why?” But he ignores the question and shows me the report. Something ripped out of a scientific journal at the State Library down near the University. In a plastic sleeve, like all the rest of the articles he has in that bag, several hundred, at least.
He doesn’t sound crazy, and I’m pretty sure he would have better luck getting a job in Europe than I would, with just language skills alone, but the longer we talk, the more I notice the same subjects coming up over and over. OK, maybe he can’t hold a job, for whatever reason. But still… this man obviously understands physics. I decide to leave, but before I do I reach back into my pocket and hand him the contents, another two or three Euros probably. He takes the money and sticks it in his pocket, but doesn’t stop talking until I give him a little salute and turn my back and walk off.
I’m two or three blocks down the street, when I put my hand in my pocket to feel for my pocket knife. Not there. Damn! Did I just give my pocket knife to that man along with all my change? I am distressed. I love that knife. I think about running back down the street and asking for it back. Or, maybe that’s too tacky. It was a gift to him. Maybe I should offer to buy it back. I paid $25 or $30 for it, but it can’t be worth that to him. Should I offer $10?
Oh, for God’s sake, Dave. You had entertained the idea of reaching into your wallet and handing the guy a €20 bill. What possible difference does it make that he has your knife? Buy another one. Yes, but I love that knife.
And this conversation goes on in my mind for the next hour or two. I am shocked, and distressed, at what I appear to be attached to. It is a knife. I can buy another one. But I am so upset that I gave it away. I begin to wonder what it is I think I am giving people when I hand them money. Obviously nothing of value to me. Am I even willing to offer something of value? I don’t know. I’m confused. What is my relationship with homeless people? What are my responsibilities? My wife and I give a fair amount of money away to charitable causes. Are we making a sacrifice when we do this? Or do we just give away what we can spare without feeling uncomfortable ourselves? And does giving away this little bit make us feel comfortable, when the goal of giving may be to feel uncomfortable ourselves?
I don’t have any answers. But in the morning, when I wake up, I still miss my knife. I lay there for a little while thinking about it. Finally, I say, “Oh, the hell with it, you can have it,” to the physics guy, as I get up and gingerly make my way down the stairs to start the coffee. And there, laying on the kitchen counter where I left it last night, is my knife.
It’s a strange place, this world.