Afternoon on an Overpass

We don’t see many beggars in Dalian, at least not in my neck of the asphalt jungle. Yesterday, though, on an elevated bridge over one of the busier bottlenecks of traffic, at Heishijiao, was a doubleheader. I am eternally conflicted, and all the more so in China, where most people are convinced that beggars get rich.

Or get someone else rich: the popular belief seems to be that every beggar has a pimp who preys on the helpless sympathy of passersby – in my view, most people are quite well fortified against this! – and of course the pathetic needs of the (often-handicapped, or apparently so) “collectors”. I’ve seen and chronically misunderstood or misread enough of this country to believe that there could be truth to this urban dogma, but also feel compelled to ask those who spout it a head-tilting zhen de ma? (Really? Really?)

I was on my way to McDonald’s, lately my go-to spot for a little (not so) quiet thinking, reading, writing and people-watching. But I didn’t plan to watch that: pedestrians on the bridge parted in oblivious avoidance of a long-haired man, half-naked on a zero-degree day, lying on his stomach on the concrete, muttering as he flopped his head and torso violently up and down, up and down. On the downward stairs at the other end of the bridge, a bundle of clothes (possibly old, possibly female) was kneeling, unseen forehead nearly touching the concrete landing.

I read my novel. I ate a McFlurry. I made plans. I scribbled notes for a draft of a proposal to supplement a project I’ve been avoiding. I read encouraging non-fiction. McChicken and fries followed. I watched the young woman two tables over, hunched over her needlework . (She outstayed my three hours, and ate less.) My introvert-in-the-crowd engagement over, I walked back to the bridge, heading for the number 28 bus back to family, sweet music and fresh hot conversation.

Still, in the darkness of a late afternoon, the kneeling shape silently begged. Still, more than three hours later, the spastic figure wearing only pants jerked and muttered. I put a little money in their hats, and didn’t feel better at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *