Saturday, July 10, 2010

It Is Illegal to Solicit Money on a New York City Subway



A guy came on the subway to sell the two books he’d written. His presentation lacked charisma. He boarded with two armfuls of new books, about the size and shape of a typical academic journal. He walked by me speaking softly about how he was selling the books he had written. Then he walked by me in the other direction and found a spot in the middle of the subway car where he could give his pitch, more loudly but much quieter than most subway-borne fundraising efforts. He had two books to sell that he had written. One was fiction and one was poetry. The poetry book was called Don’t Beat Your Children or They’ll Grow Up to Be Like Me. The title sounded familiar and possibly implied something about the author that wouldn’t make you want to buy his book directly from him on the subway.

Months earlier I had bought a DVD of an animation aimed at kids that someone was selling on the subway. That man’s voice had a teacherish sort of lilt and he sounded like Del the Funky Homosapien. (The author I saw today had a very unmemorable sort of voice.) When I bought the animation I thought about the story I could tell people about the idiosyncratic but charming animation I bought on the subway, but when I watched it the sound didn’t sync with the picture and I only lasted a few minutes.

I didn’t hear what the book of fiction was titled. I was reading my own book and was sure not to look up because I didn’t want to talk to the man. He said you could find him online and order his books through Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter but that sometimes readers wanted a signed copy of his books and that’s why he came on the subway. He explained that his book of poetry consisted of quotes, haikus, and Facebook status updates. He read a few of his Facebook status updates: “Poor people buy the most expensive clothes, rich people get them for free.” I forget the other examples but they had the same tone of a moralistic stand-up comedian. I don’t know what the books cost, and I didn’t give him any money. I felt silly covertly listening and tried to focus on my book.

I was reading David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. I was at a part when Wallace was talking about how he had reached a place of emotional stability at which he did things for the work and not for the money or associated fame. Earlier in the day I had read something on The Rumpus by Elissa Bassist about writing to get paid; to get paid didn’t require writing according to someone else’s dictates, it required writing so well that you produced something valuable enough that people would pay for it. I thought about my job and how it paid and the things I wrote for it and the things I bought with what it paid me. I thought about my job and how it might not pay me enough for the privilege of renting my brain for eight hours and owning all that it could produce in that time.

I thought about how I joined Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn—not MySpace, though, unlike the author hawking his books on my car on the A train—when I decided to leave graduate school just in case the journalistic trend stories I read were true and I could get a job through Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. I thought about my efforts at writing and how I didn’t even have self-published books that I could try to sell on the subway and make people feel uncomfortable, and how instead I was reading a book that was a conversation between two writers talking mostly about writing.

I thought about the person on my car on the A train just a few minutes earlier who had asked for help to buy a pair of dress shoes for his first day at work as a secretary’s assistant the next day. If he didn’t get a pair of dress shoes, he said, he couldn’t keep the job. He said we could call his future boss if we didn't believe his story. He told us the phone number. He had $17 and he needed $35 to get the shoes at Payless. I had thought about giving him $20 and getting him to his goal, but I didn’t give him any money, either.