Periscope Depth

when johnny comes marching home again

A two-man panhandling team worked the MBTA Red Line on Monday evening.

One was dressed in full Army fatigues: BDUs, boots, cover, duffel bag slung over the shoulder. His jacket had a tag that said “U.S. ARMY” and a flag on one shoulder, but no other patches or insignia. As soon as the doors closed at Park Street, he began asking people for money. He claimed he needed bus fare to Philadelphia, but the amount he asked for kept changing.

The other boarded at the same time. Mid-twenties, dark hair short but not buzzed. “I got a few bucks for you,” he said. “I used to be’na Army.” He slouched in his seat. The jeans he wore had no crotch to them; just a ragged hole showing his faded briefs.

“Bet if everyone on this train pitched in a buck,” the crotchless man said, “you’d have bus fare.”

The complete lack of insignia on the Army man’s fatigues were one sign: no skill badges, no shoulder tab, no name tape. But even before I considered that, I had these two pegged as panhandlers. There’s that odd tone that beggars have, the combination of pleading and righteousness (“I just needa coupla bucks”). People who are genuinely entitled to money are more angry; people who are genuinely desperate are more tearful.

The two of them rode three stops, from Park Street to Central Square. As the train entered the station, the man in the wrecked jeans got up. He beckoned the man in fatigues with two quick fingers and stepped off the train. Maybe they were going to do the same routine inbound, although you have to pay to cross the tracks at Central.

A tweaker in surplus Army fatigues pleading for a fix bothers me in a way that your other Red Line panhandlers don’t. Not because I think it tarnishes the reputation of the Armed Services. It’s not my Army, and the people I know who’ve served will tell you there are plenty of tweakers in uniform.

It bothers me because it exploits such a dominant social trend. Most civilians can’t disrespect a man in uniform. They just don’t have it in them. So when a man in anonymous BDUs says he just needs a few bucks for bus fare, our first reaction – ignore him – gets overwritten.

I’m surprised we don’t see it more often.

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