The Beggar Woman at Tampines Mall

Yesterday, just as I was about to cross the street near Tampines Mall (a very pedestrian-heavy intersection between the Tampines MRT station and Tampines Mall), a slightly oldish-looking woman, possibly between 45 and 55, grabbed my arm and asked me (in surprisingly decent English) for $5.

Stunned more than anything else, my immediate reaction was to ask, “what for?”

There was a brief pause before she said, “to buy something to eat.”

I was still not quite registering what was happening (note that at this point she was still holding on to my arm, a most uncomfortable feeling), and with my mind still pretty much focused on crossing the road, I asked, “where are you going to eat?”

There was another pause, this time longer than before. While she was still registering what to say, I, too, was zooming ahead to consider what my next reaction would and should be. Whatever it was, I decided, I wasn’t going to give her any money. If need be, I would instead accompany her to any place selling food and buy the food for her.

“I need money to buy food,” she reiterated after the pause. And like a child who after pondering long and hard about the answer to what 12 x 12 was, and suddenly realising it was 144, her eyes lit up and she added, “I need money to buy food for my family.”

I wasn’t expecting her to say that — I was now imagining eating with her and her family and how odd that would be (I wasn’t thinking too clearly at this time, forgetting that it was possible to buy takeaway). I reconsidered my “only food, no cash” position, but stood by it, realising that offering to buy her food instead of giving her the money outright wasn’t all that bad. So I asked her again, “where are you going to buy the food?”

Flustered with all the questions, she became desperate. “Please give me $5,” she said, half-bending her knees (as if to kneel down). The first thought that came to my mind (other than that this was such an interesting situation to be in) was that this was so dramatic, and that in television dramas kneel-threateners almost always get what they want (that is, the person they’re going to kneel to almost always asks them to get up, right before they cave in the the initial request that prompted the kneeling).

The second thought that came to my mind was on what I was going to do. What could I do in a situation like this? My heart was set on not giving her cash, but letting her kneel down in front of me was going too far (I’d have preferred to give the cash). I resolved, then, to kneel down with her as a last resort, if anything at least the humiliation would be borne by two.

But a couple of seconds after she initiated her knee-bending, I realised she was taking far too long in her attempt; it generally doesn’t take that long to kneel, and if she was going to do it she would have done it already. It was quite obviously half-hearted, and was probably an empty threat (she might just have had weak knees preventing efficient execution of the kneel).

But I didn’t get to find out if she’d have gone all the way because before she did, another woman standing nearby held her and asked her, “Auntie, why? What’s wrong? Don’t cry. Don’t cry, okay?”

Filled with relief that I didn’t really have had to kneel with this “auntie”, I looked at this woman with the hope that she’d understand my appreciation for her joining me in this difficult situation. But the look she returned was unreadable — was she chiding me for giving this poor woman such a hard time, or was she telling me to carry on with my life and that she’d take it from here?

The “auntie” let go of my arm (finally!) and turned toward the woman. “I need $5 to feed my family,” she told her. Without hesitating, the woman then took out $5 from her purse and gave it to the auntie, telling her to “take care,” walking off right after she did (like me, she wanted to cross the road). Just as this woman left, the auntie turned toward me and with a hint of moral superiority said, “See! That woman gave me $5 and told me to take care! You didn’t even want to help!”

This sudden accusation ruffled me a bit. I did want to help. I looked back at her and said, “It’s not that I didn’t want to help. I asked you where you were going to eat, and I’d have brought you there to eat.” There was a brief pause, then she added, “She told me to take care. You didn’t tell me to take care!”

I had half the mind of continuing this debate with her (“I asked you where you were going to eat”), but I realised I had no business being there anymore. I had errands to run, and the poor woman probably wouldn’t have been begging if she could help it. I walked off quickly as the other woman had done, the sounds of the accusations dying off in the distance.

About ten minutes later, after my errands were run, I had to walk by the same place again, and I wasn’t all that surprised to see the auntie still there. As I waited for the light to turn green, I saw her busily going from one person to the next, asking for money. Most brushed her aside immediately, but some, like me, stopped to listen to what she had to say. When the lights turned green and I crossed, I overheard her telling a young student couple something about somebody’s grandfather dying.

I stood behind this couple for a while, looking at her, listening to this story not offered to me previously (engrossed in telling her story, she did not notice me). The couple after some deliberation shyly shook their heads and walked on. Looking for her next target, she then turned in my direction and saw me looking at her, before looking down and turning away. As did I.

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