Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 34. June 2012. Mr Needleman of Plein Street

QA 34. June 2012. Mr Needleman of Plein Street

QA 34. June 2012. Mr Needleman of Plein Street

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On June 17, 2012
  • begging, inequality, injustice, life in the city

I’m walking down Plein Street when he catches my eye. He offers a packet of sewing needles. “No, thank you”, I say, not breaking stride. That could have been the end of it, but he turns after me. Please, mummy! It’s my last one. I can buy some more to sell and get me something to eat. I show him my back. He follows, his tone darkening. Please, mummy. I asked you nicely. Well, no. It wasn’t nicely at all. When I join the stream of pedestrians at Golden Acre he gives up and turns back.

Such a small scene, but it stays with me. What just happened? Why am I left so irritated and bemused?

I love walking the city in rush hour. I move fast, weaving through dawdling schoolgirls and other slow-moving traffic. As is usual here, I meet the eyes of people I pass, often sharing a quick smile. I accept a jeweller’s flyer and stop to buy fruit and shampoo from pavement hawkers.

In public spaces like this, we generally mind our own business and give each other space. An accidental bump gets a Sorry! But still, there are acceptable ways to interrupt a stranger. One can appeal for help – for directions, say, or a cigarette light ­– without harm, innocently. Generally, this draws a response of friendly helpfulness. It’s not much to ask. Everyone gets a little charge of human warmth.

Another approach is to offer some goods or service. Like Simple Simon with his pieman, we stop to try their wares. But it is only an offer, an invitation: the passer-by has to remain free to pass by. This is how the young man approached me. If I had bought his needles, we would have danced the complementary roles of merchant and customer and all would be well. But I didn’t, not even as a hidden act of charity.

The moment I declined to be his customer, he dropped the salesman approach. He pleaded with me as a woman of privilege, in the name of the mother, but with none of the humility that’s required for a true appeal. What he called “asking nicely” was coercion laced with hatred (for me, himself, the whole wretched situation). Violence was in the air.

In this encounter, there was no way for us to meet as equals. One of us had to be demeaned by the other, whether by the instrument of my social status or his force. I think this is why I instinctively refused to participate and walked away, and also why I felt so perplexed. Now I perceive how he struggles to play the game, even to play by the rules, even as he knows it is rigged against him and resists. An impossible position.

I don’t mean to establish any justification or precedent with this. In the end, it’s just another small story about the iniquity of injustice that debases us all.



On behalf of Gabrielle: Thanks for your little story. It is close to my heart as this type of thing happens a lot. I hope it is appropriate for me to respond. My thoughts: Is humility required for appeal? If one was humble there would not be a need to appeal? As a constructivist (brand new word for me so still playing with it and tasting the word and the label) I don't think we can know what the seller's state of mind was. I can imagine desperation, frustration and an array of other feelings but I don't really know. But for me, the real question is always about self and it is that irritation (that I also feel towards thwarted beggars) which was the aggression in the air. It was the only confessed aggression/violence. I have been using irritation as a marker to point to something that I may find I am attached to and when I find myself in this situation, I think that my attachment may be towards: not being forced to look at the desperation, frustration of others. It is my state of contented mind that is preferable to me and it is my ability to choose that is being threatened. I am attached to my contented, free, self. And to the idea that I am fully in control of this self. Grace is never deserved nor earned, otherwise it would not be Grace. It would be reward. To give can be an act of Grace or an act of ?.........lots of other things. All depends on the intention. And to demand that Grace? Is that an appeal? and does it require humility? or humanity? But again that is the mind of the begger so the question is..To live in Grace? Is that an act of humility? To give unconditionally... Is that an act of humility? Dont know where this is going only that they are my thoughts.
I pinned this post. I think we all draw lines for all sorts of reasons, most of the reasons are about ourselves. Which is why in addition to suggesting people practice kindness, I think forgiving ourselves as well as others is also part of staying strong. Thank you for opening up this topic.
Helen Douglas
On behalf of Leon: Hi, Helen. Long time, no ‘speak’. So I’ll just take opportunity to appreciate your honesty and eye for the richness of the moment in “…just another small story about the iniquity of injustice that debases us all” …and about the ‘small’ choices that we make every day, often not considered, yet which offer an opportunity to reflect on all the profound issues implicated in that moment of choice. I do, however, also note small doubts as to whether the inequalities invoked are necessarily unjust…unless one assumes any inequality is unjust. If I was Needleman, in the context I think you assume he and you and readers understand and share, I might well experience what you attribute to him…but, who knows, I might accept my karma with love in my heart. It’s not unheard of. If so, might I not be otherwise privileged in this encounter? …but then, of course, I (as Needleman) would have responded otherwise…different story, invoking (if heard) the sophia of philia! But I do get that the predominant context on Plein St. has a long history of profound injustice and violence. Just (or unjust) a niggling doubt… Warm regards, Leon

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