Streetlife- A Cultural Comparison

New York City

Obviously there are plenty of homeless people in NYC and I’d guess that a majority suffer from some kind of addiction and/or mental illness. A lot of them would like you to give them money but in general I’ve always found them to be pretty low-key about it. They usually just plop themselves down on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign which provides any extra details they wish to give you as to why they need help. Some with a bit more get-up-and-go will travel the subways, giving well-rehearsed speeches about their plights, or singing for a bit of change. Of course there are plenty of ranters as well. However, they’re generally not asking for money but rather, just raving about something they’d really like you to know about (i.e. Jesus Christ, the evil symbolism of this year’s Macy’s Santa Claus´s belt buckle, etc.).

Tokyo, Japan

Relatively speaking, Tokyo has very few homeless people and during the three years I lived there, I was never once asked for a hand-out. I remember one park in Shibuya where severa homeless people had made a small town for themselves out of cardboard boxes. What struck me the most was how outside several of the shelters, you could see pairs of shoes which the inhabitants had taken off before entering their boxes. There were also several brooms propped up beside the doors. One must have standards after all.  On the other hand, after 11 pm or so, the streets of Tokyo are absolutely teeming with drunk Japanese businessmen and office workers. These guys never ask you for money but they sometimes pinch your bottom or worse, throw up on your feet. Riding on the metro at that time of night is likebeing trapped inside an empty can of stale beer and the stations are full of warning signs  depicting cartoon pictures of unsteady looking men in suits falling onto the train tracks. Oddly, this sort of behavior seems to be perfectly acceptable in Japan. This never seemed fair to me considering that walking around with an exposed bra strap is seen as utterly shameful.

Lausanne, Switzerland

Are there homeless people in Switzerland? I never saw one. There was a tidy little group of dope addicts  who hung out near the entrance to the parking garage near the Place de la Riponne but that was really about it.

Madrid, Spain

The old center of Madrid is rife with all sorts of street life. There are pickpockets, gypsies, people with horrible deformities sitting on the sidewalks with signs asking for money, people who cover their bodies in silver paint and stand still for hours at a time and so on and so forth. My neighborhood is about 40 minutes walking from the center and we still have a fair number of local street characters. Most of them I see on a daily basis and am familiar enough with them that we’ll frequently exchange small talk about my kids, theweather etc. There is one particular gypsy woman whose beat seems to unfortunately coincide with my daily routine. She always wears stripy socks and I really don’t like her because she curses me (by this I mean she literally puts hexes on me as opposed to just telling me to fuck off) whenever I refuse to give her money. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that cursing people  is probably not the best way to cement good relations for possible future donations.

On my street we also have several accordion players. They tend to adopt a certain location and then stick to it religiously (I often wonder about the intricacies of street musician turf politics). At night when the tapas bars are open, they roam up and down the  street, playing one or two tunes at each spot and then moving on to the next. Since we live directly upstairs from two bars with outdoor seating, I can safely say that if given the choice between listening to five minutes of jack hammering versus yet another accordion rendition of “My Way,” I’d gladly choose the former.