Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Money -- In New York, you can't give it away.

My favorite movie of all time is "Sullivan's Travels." Written and directed by the great Preston Sturges, this film traces the journeys of Sullivan, Hollywood's brightest and best director of comedies ("Hey-hey in the Hayloft," "Ants in Your Plants") as he goes underground, wearing rags, to explore the dark part of America that suffered most during the Great Depression.

Why does Sully leave his mansion, his power, his prestige? Because he wants to adapt a modern novel, "O, Brother, Where art Thou?" to the screen. (The Coen Brothers liked this title so much, they used it for their own Depression-era comedy).

I refuse to spoil the plot of "Sullivan's Travels" for those who haven't yet seen it (and do see it, as soon as you can). But there is a sequence I'd like to talk about: at then end of the second act, Sully has seen enough poverty to last a lifetime. He decides to get a stack of five dollar bills and distribute them personally to the needy. This decision has far-ranging consequences for Sully, but the thing that interests me is that the people he reaches out to – men, women, children – take the five-dollar gift with wonder and wide-eyed gratitude. Well, why not? Times were tough, and five dollars went a long way.

Last week my friend, New Yorker Joshua Krafchin, did something similar. Josh is no Hollywood director, but he is friends with Courtney Martin. Ms Martin, a writer, has her own ideas about creative philanthropy. Saturday night marked the fourth annual dance-crazed celebration of what Ms. Martin calls the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy. The New York Times wrote about her (and Josh) yesterday:

Each year she gives a number of people $100 to give away as they see fit. Some exchanged the bills for pennies, distributing "lucky pennies" through the streets of New York. One left the entire $100 as a well-deserved tip. Another gave the stack of bills to a woman he saw who collects and recycle bottles and cans to make her way.

Josh did something different. He went on the subway, and begged people to take his money. You can see what happened here:

When I'm in New York, I ride the subway. It's fast, cheap, and gives me a certain superior feeling. (Hey, I may be an out-of-towner, but I know how to get around.) Occasionally someone will address the entire subway car. Usually this person is asking for something. The typical response: avoid eye contact, pretend the person doesn’t exist, get off at your stop as planned.

I'm not faulting New Yorkers. If this happened on a Washington, DC subway car, we'd probably all jump the person as a threat to national security.

But when Josh offers people money, very much like Sully in Preston Sturgess's film, the people avoid eye contact. They pretend Josh isn't there. They get off at their stops as planned.

Why? We're in a recession, right? Times are tough, right? Who couldn't use some extra cash?

Well, there are a couple of answers. One is, these people are so use to being accosted by strangers, they go into automatic ignore-mode when a stranger addresses the car, even though this stranger is giving away money, not asking for it.

Another reason: these people are going to work, or coming from work. They have jobs, for the most part. Perhaps they felt uneasy taking money when thee were others more needy.

Finally, they've seen con artist ply their trade before. What if taking the money obligated them to some kind of shell game where, ultimately, they'd be the losers?

"Well, I am exhausted," Josh said after getting turned down again and again. "I had no idea it was so hard to give away one hundred dollars."

Josh is a native New Yorker. "I've ridden the subways my whole life, and always wanted to do something to make them better but never did. Until now."

Have we lost something as Americans, that we can no longer see a free gift, let alone accept one? Are we that jaded, that guarded? Maybe we should take a lesson from the banks and insurance companies.

Josh adjusts his approach in the second half of the video and finally succeeds. I'm glad, because at the mid-point of the video, Josh acknowledges the only person who would take his money is the one holding the camera, whom Josh describes as a "starving novelist and fourth-rate cameraman."

Hmmm…must've been some other starving novelist fourth-rate cameraman.

1 comment:

  1. A man on the subway recommended Peter Sellers movie as well: The Magic Christian. Have you seen it? On my not-written-down list but haven't gotten there yet.

    Oh AND I'd love to have the services of a first-rate cameraman for the next attempt. Know anyone with any talent who wants some New York Times exposure?