He prostrates himself on wet cobblestone. He rests on his knees, keeps his head down, and holds his arms stretched out holding a hat with a few coins inside. You look at his fingernails first. They are black, grimy and chipped. His hands, crusted with dried blood, shake slightly. He is wearing dirty clothes: black track jacket, brown cargo pants with holes, out turned pockets. His scraggly dark hair hangs over his face. It is greasy and unkempt. He has no shoes. You walk by and your chest aches. It knots and burns and knots and aches; your heart turns over, creaks, and tightens. You feel the square of your wallet in your back right pocket. You are walking towards Old Town Square through a twisting alley in downtown Prague, Czech Republic. Above you are the high domes on top of the ornate Baroque architecture. The buildings look powerful, extravagant, and phallic. Far from the traffic of major streets, the alley is quiet. You reach into your pocket and shuffle around for a few Koruna. You bend down slightly to drop it into the beggars hat. He bows his head three times. He murmurs something in a language you can’t understand but you recognize the tone: obsequious. He is groveling and it breaks your fucking heart.
The Czech word for homeless is Bezdomovec. It means both homeless and stateless. The ambiguous definition is a testament to the country’s vague stance towards the issue. The Czech Republic, being a part of the former Soviet bloc, hasn’t had to deal with the problem of homelessness until recently. Under communist rule it was illegal to not have a job. By recent estimates there are 5,000 to 6,000 homeless men and women sleeping on Prague’s streets. Of this figure it is estimated that 86% of the homeless are male. The general attitude towards the homeless is that they voluntarily live on the fringes of society.
The beggars of Prague are unlike that of any other city. In New York, the beggars have cardboard signs with sad stories, witty quips, and pleas for help. They have some weight to them and they make eye contact with passers by. In Dublin, the beggars sit still on milk crates under a sleeping bag and have a paper cup on the cement in front of them, they say “ Please, please…” after your retreating footsteps. In Prague, the beggars say and do nothing. They spend hours in the same position on the ground. Late at night they return to their make-shift homes and weep.
An excerpt from a sonnet titled “The New Colossus” by American poet Emma Lazarus:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The beggars of Prague are a public display of shame. They do not expect any handouts. Nor do they verbally ask for one. Their positioning says it all. They feel below you so they put themselves below you.
In New York City, you walked through a subway station and a ragged old man with no teeth approached you and said, “ Lemme hold a dollar.” You tilted your head down to avoid his eyes. “I know you paid for the ticket, just lemme get some change.” You shook your head, you murmured a quick, shallow, “Sorry.” You walked away.
There are homeless in every country on earth, and in every country, more often than not, you don’t give them money. But in Prague, on this particular overcast night, you drop a 50 Koruna piece–the equivalent of 2 U.S. Dollars–into his hat. The change clangs with other coins. He grovels. You walk away and look at the silver halo of the moon through the clouds and let freely your breath. “Did I make a difference,” you wonder? Then, the golden spire of a historic building catches your eye, you point to it, wanting to share its beauty with your fellow traveler. You smile. The beggar is out of your mind and, perhaps, you are out of his.