Beggars, just like retailers, are subject to trends, since both are vending commodities to a fickle and easily distracted public. (Beggars, who sell the right to condescend to others, are best understood as street vendors — Gary Becker probably argues its a sound, rational economic decision on the beggars’ part.) As anyone who has walked down Fifth Avenue recently, the cutting edge fad in begging is to have a few well-disciplined cats by your side — you probably don’t want to know how they get that well disciplined: we’ve seen some beatdowns in front of the church on the corner of 55th street, when the cats were not sitting still. Nevertheless, homeless-looking guys with a couple kittens in a shoebox are cropping up all over Manhattan.
Some troubling reasons for this trend: having pets seem to humanize the beggar in ways simply being human, for whatever reason, does not. Perhaps its to close to our own potential fate to accept the reality of these beggars, so we want to completely ignore them. Or perhaps we ascribe responsibility to them for their condition in ways we don’t to the cats, who are, like all domestic animals, absolved of responsibility in the presumption of their helplessness and are objects of unadulterated condescension. Also, because the beggar can maintain a pet he suddenly seems theoretically loving and giving, although the conclusion that he’s exploiting the animals for his own gain is inescapable. That the situation is nakedly exploitative likely is momentarily forgotten in the cuteness explosion, as must happen at children’s beauty paegants. And then there’s the obvious ruse that money given will go directly to feeding the cats and not to feeding the beggar, as though cats can’t get by on eating garbage, of which there’s copious amounts in the neighborhood (just follow your nose). But this ruse appeals to that depressingly large misanthropic portion of the populace who care more for animals that humans, people who wouldn’t cross the street to piss on a man if he were on fire but will spend thousands to maintain pets in luxury. These people for whatever reason can’t respond to human suffering at all — perhaps they have suffered too much themselves — but are wide open to be moved by perceived animal discomfort. These, I suspect, are the beggars best customers. The beggar confirms to these people that humans are scumbags and cats are saintly martyrs.
Slate directed me to a related issue this morning, and to this Washington Post article about pet hoarding. Seemingly, pet hoarders collect animals as if they were objects, and the temptation is to view them as obsessive-compulsives, as having the same kind of collector-mania that afflicts many people in a consumer society — the whole quantity over quality conundrum that the capitalist growth mandate requires. But I don’t think that’s right. The article hints at a profile for hoarders that includes the inability to make decisions, and this seems more likely an explanation. A moment of pity encourages the person to take the pet on and then once the pet is taken the person can’t handle the continued responsibility of caring for it, and gets new pets to re-enact that initial moment of irresistible pity and heroic rescue. Hoarders are likely addicted to both those things, that moment of being overwhelmed by pity and moved to action, action that they can aggrandize. Whereas their lives are ordinarily probably dominated by feelings of ineffectuality, powerlessness, passivity. So in that way it is like the compulsive shoppers who are addicted to that moment of power and completion and mastery over their own supposed needs when they buy something, when they exercise that all-important socially-worshipped power of decision-making between brands.