Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

of the MBTA

It was night, and Central Square was largely empty. A few cars drove down the street, a few guys loitered outside the bars, a few lights were on in windows, but the city was quietly shutting down. I walked down the steps into the subway, paid my fare, and began looking for a place to sit and read.

I found a bench, another kid sitting at the opposite side, and took my seat. “Spare a dollar?” the kid asked. “Sorry,” I said, “spent everything I have to get in here.” “Man, wish I had five bucks,” he said. “If I had that I’d be out there grabbing a meal. I haven’t eaten in like two days.”

I tried to read my book but he wanted to talk. “You just come back from school?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I was visiting a friend.” “Oh, I thought you were at school ‘cause of the book.” “Oh, I’ve been carrying this around all day,” I said. “What is it?” he asked. “It’s a book about books,” I said. He laughed. “I thought it was a bible or something.”

“You heading to Alewife?” I asked. “No,” he said, laughing. “I’m staying right here.” I blinked twice and began to realize what he meant. He wasn’t asking for money because he’d been out all night and spent the cash his parents gave him. He was asking for money because he was homeless. And with fits and starts, he told me a little of his story as I waited for the train.

He grew up with his family in New Hampshire. They were “rich” then, at least by comparison, lived in a real “mansion”. Inspectors started coming around to check out the house, three in one month. Finally a man came to tell them the bad news. “You have to move out,” he said. “The house is infested with termites; it’ll collapse within months.” “What are you talking about?” his mom responded. “This place is fine; inspectors have been looking it all over.” The man picked up a large hammer, lifted it above his head and struck a mighty blow — at the wall. The drywall broke away to reveal termites filling the insides, eating away at the wood.

They had to leave fast, didn’t even have time to pack stuff. The bulldozers came the next day, turned the whole thing into rubble. They also bulldozed his mom’s car, where she kept all the money. They were homeless and penniless. The Department of Social Services picked up his five-year-old brother, insisted on $100 fee if they wanted to regain custody. “If I had that kind of money,” he explained, “I’d be eating with it.”

So he decided to start hitchhiking, head to Cambridge where he had some family. Caught a ride in the back of a UPS truck, then after that dropped him off, waited for another hour or two in the middle of nowhere before he could find someone else. Finally he found his way to part of the Boston subway system, where he managed to sneak his way through the turnstiles. Now he could ride all around town, get to Cambridge, where he set up base in Central Square.

“Mostly I just sit here,” he explained. “Sometimes I just ride the trains all day, Braintree to Alewife and back. Found a violin some guy had lost — hey, I’m homeless and you’re not — and started playing it for money, but the cops picked me up for performing without a license and threw me in jail for the night. Just because I’m a homeless kid you’re going to throw me in jail? Anyway, I make more money than that just telling jokes.”

“Pretty absurd, actually. Spent all day here asking folks for spare change, nobody could spare a thing. Here I am, homeless kid in Cambridge, and nobody even has a couple spare pennies!”

To outward appearances he seems like a normal kid with a bit of an army look. His hair is buzzed, he wears a wifebeater shirt with an army jacket and baggy army pants. At first I thought this was just a style, but actually it’s utilitarian — everything he owns is in the pockets of those pants. He showed me what he had.

“Stole this from a friend today,” he said, pulling something out from under his jacket. “Brand new CD player, awesome headphones, full batteries, great CD inside.” He began playing it for me; it was rap songs: Ridin’ and Eminem. “And check out this he said,” before pulling out a PSP. “Got this when we were rich, but can’t use it for much now; had to sell all our games so we could try to find a house.” He popped it open. “See, no cartridges. Still, I borrow some from friends sometimes.”

There was a pause, as Eminem came out of his headphones, which he’d cranked all the way up so I could listen. “Man, imagine if Eminem were right here now, all those girls shaking their asses by him. Wouldn’t that be crazy?” “Crazier things have happened,” I said. “Lots of famous people go to Harvard Square.” “Yeah,” he said, “Beyonce was there the other week — came in for a wedding or something — it was like a mob scene, people jumping all over her.”

He often took the conversation in the direction of such imaginations — what if a celebrity popped up here? He talked about how he used to play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with a cheat code to make celebrities appear in the game. But aside from these discursions, he was remarkably cogent, pretty sane for someone in such a screwed-up situation.

“Man, my life sucks,” he said after a pause. “If you could do anything, what would you do?” I asked. “If I could do anything?” he said. “Yeah.” “Man, I’d be back at home with my mom and brothers and family and stuff.”

He begun telling me something about his mom — how she’d managed to recover one of her debit cards from the rubble of her car and bought a new house, but never told him about it, he’d only heard rumor of it third-hand, how she’d put her own child out on the street to fend for himself, but I couldn’t quite hear him because the train pulled up as he was talking. He finally stopped talking, but I strained, waiting for more. “That’s your train,” he finally said, “you better catch it.” “Sorry,” I said, walking towards it.

I grabbed a seat, hearing “Spare change? Spare change?” as the doors closed and we pulled away. I started trying to read my book, but found I wasn’t really capable of reading anything at all.

You should follow me on twitter here.

September 25, 2006


Despite my best efforts, I can already imagine what a lot of you are going to say: you’re being naieve, the kid’s a liar, doesn’t your privileged ass know there are lots of kids like that, what’s the big deal. I can’t stop you from saying that, but maybe we can also talk seriously about the pain.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 25, 2006 #

Here were my thoughts:

  1. Wow, that’s incredibly painful.

  2. I should help him. I should give him $100. No, I should raise money for him on my website and get much more.

  3. But there are lots of people to help. Maybe I should donate money to an organization instead.

  4. But do organizations do any good? Why hasn’t he visited one already? There have to be organizations to help people like that.

  5. Oh right, you always hear stories about how jaded and humanless social workers at such organizations are. I can kind of see why — can you imagine listening to tragedies like that all day and trying to remain human? Let alone the lying and stealing and so on…

  6. Wow, that’s incredibly painful.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 25, 2006 #

Ok, so, I assume from your comments that you already realize that the story the kid told you was almost certainly not true.

It is of course painful to talk to people who are in those sorts of situations; it makes your own privilege feel like a mark of shame.

But, I think to be honest with yourself, you have to ask yourself the question: How would you feel differently if you actually knew this kid’s true story? While he’s no doubt had a tough life, the reality is that he’s probably also made a lot of incredibly stupid choices. That’s why he’s making up stories to explain his situation and fixating on the easy bling-bling life of the celebrity.

You ask about giving money, and about support organizations, and social workers. Those things are the easy part of the problem, though. The tough part of the problem is getting this kid to a point where he can make constructive use of those things. Note that I’m not saying his situation is his fault. I am saying that you can’t fix his problems just by giving him things that he doesn’t have right now. He has to change himself also.

posted by Mark on September 25, 2006 #

Do you have any reason to believe he did anything wrong? Or do you just assume the world is so perfect that only morally flawed people can be homeless?

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 25, 2006 #

How did someone possibly making “incredibly stupid choices” morph into their being “morally flawed?”

posted by ged on September 25, 2006 #

By stopping through “would you feel differently if you actually knew” and “He has to change himself also”.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 25, 2006 #

I think what it takes is the homeless guy to find a job, and someone gutsy enough to do hire them. We need more gutsy employers.


posted by Matt Todd on September 25, 2006 #

Aaron, I don’t think you understood what Mark said: that the kid is making up preposterous stories indicates that he finds it difficult to face the reality of the situation, a reality that probably makes him feel ashamed. Whether you’re without moral flaw is besides the point; he could easily be suffering from a mental disorder. The very improbability of the story itself strikes me as a cry for help. (Initially, the first mention of “money left in a car” led me to anticipate a con job.)

I’ve had experience with a close acquaintence who fell into the same kind of situation, and what impressed me at the time (as it does here) was the overwhelming aversion to confronting the problem. One statement I’ll never forget: how sleeping in Golden Gate Park should not be deemed unacceptable and in fact was “just like camping.”

posted by Mike Sierra on September 25, 2006 #

This is why the answer is not organizations, the government, charity from strangers, etc.

The order of assistance should be: self, immediate family, extended family, friends, organizations, town, county, state, federal. Then, however fantastical the story is, the individual would have to convince each successive party.

posted by pwb on September 25, 2006 #

Response to Aaron’s out-of-band question about what is so preposterous about the kid’s story: Inspectors repeatedly come to check out the house. If the house were in danger of imminent collapse, would multiple visits be necessary, given how easy it is to probe a beam? Inspector says it’ll collapse within months, but they don’t have time to retrieve any of their belongings before it’s razed the very next day? How did they manage to bulldoze the mom’s car, anyway? How does that work? Isn’t it a little convenient to the story that’s where their savings are kept? What prompted local authorities to take the brother that would require only $100 to get him back? Aren’t these matters a bit more complicated than getting your stuff out of storage? What happened to that family of his he said lived in Cambridge? His mom used a debit card to buy a house? If they have a bank account with enough money to buy a house outright, why was so much cash kept in the car? If your car had just been clobbered by a bulldozer, would you search through the rubble trying to retrieve the debit card, or just get the bank to replace it? And she never told the kid about the new house? Again, what rings familiar to my ear is the sense that this ever-more-elaborate set of things is happening to him all at once and he has no control over them.

posted by Mike Sierra on September 25, 2006 #

Forgot a minor one: the sort of local-delivery UPS trucks you can ride in the back of are not likely to be used for longer-distance interstate routes.

posted by Mike Sierra on September 25, 2006 #

Considering I only spoke to him for a short time, he was quite young, and he’s had serious traumatic experiences, I don’t think the fact that some portions of his story seem odd is unreasonable. It certainly doesn’t make the story preposterous.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 25, 2006 #

I doubt his story is true. I’ve known homeless kids who tell stories that make themselves look worse than the truth, maybe for the reason Mike mentioned: they don’t want to face the truth. Regardless of his story, he’s almost certainly homeless and he obviously needs help. The only important question is how best to help him.

I think focusing on his pain, you’re likely to do whatever you can to reduce it as quickly as possible. But I don’t think giving him a dollar or a hundred is really very helpful. Not only is it a short-term solution to a long-term problem, but it puts him in the role of helpless charity recipient. At the very least, pay him a fair wage to use one of the skills he mentioned (music, comedy, GTA) so he develops and maintains a sense of self-worth that isn’t dependent on you. Because his real pain is not so much being homeless as feeling worthless.

posted by Scott Reynen on September 25, 2006 #

For the rest of this comment thread, I’m stipulating that he’s telling the truth. If people can’t handle that, I’ll close the thread.

Scott’s suggestion is a common one, but it’s always struck me as bizarre. Forcing people into wage slavery doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 25, 2006 #

C’mon Aaron, I never said he did anything wrong, and I’m not saying the world is perfect. I said he probably made stupid choices. We’ve all made stupid choices, there is nothing wrong with making a stupid choice. And I am not denying that this kid has experienced many awful things that you or I haven’t - serial foster care, parental abuse, whatever.

But if you believe that his story is even basically true, and only superficially false, then you truly are naive. Not one element of his story is even remotely believable if you treat it with just a moderate degree of skepticism.

I was like you once: The turning point came when this guy came up to me in boston one day and said that his car was broken down on storrow drive, and he needed some money to get it towed, and he didn’t have his wallet, and so on and so forth. The only thing about this story that was totally unbelievable was that this same guy had come to me with the exact same story several months earlier. That made me pretty skeptical of street stories in general from that day forward.

But the real lesson was this: This guy was well-dressed, good-looking, and was very eloquent. I liked him a lot and really wanted to believe his story the first time. Now that he was exposed, I could not for the life of me understand why he was wasting his time with this sort of nickel-and-dime con job! The only explanation I’ve come up with that makes any sense is that he just simply didn’t want a job, or the responsibility that went with it. And that’s a perfectly reasonable choice to make, but don’t go around trying to trick me into giving you money because you don’t feel like working.

Anyway, how are you going to help the poor if you have this naive view of poor people as morally spotless individuals who are never even partially responsible for their own situation? You want to give credence to this kid’s story because it makes you feel like someone shared something important with you, and because it fits your preconceptions about the world - but the damn thing was made out of whole cloth! If you can’t understand the fact that this kid feels the need to make shit up to divert responsibility from himself, than you can’t actually understand his situation.

posted by Mark on September 25, 2006 #

Sure, it makes sense that someone who needs money will make up a story about why he needs it. But how does that apply to this situation? It was very clear that I didn’t have any money, his story consisted of telling me that he was better off than he seemed (not surprisingly considering that’s what you have to do to remain sane in such a situation), he was completely honest about how he stole things whenever he got the chance, and I had to pull the story out of him with a needle.

But apparently none of this matters; ideology insists that the problem is that the kid just doesn’t want a job. Well, I don’t see why there’s anything wrong with that, but it doesn’t even apply in this case since his expressed goal is to be able to go back to high school!

You people are pathological. Like the social workers who become callous to escape pain, you assume everybody in dire straits is a shiftless liar so that you can avoid admiting that the world’s messed up. And you go to such lengths to maintain this, that your stories end up making less sense than his.

This thread is closed.

posted by Aaron Swartz on September 25, 2006 #

Obviously I don’t see it as wage slavery. I see it as offering him an active vs. a passive role in his own life. I’d suggest you talk to a few more homeless people about how they feel about earning their income vs. recieving charity. I expect most will tell you they prefer to earn their income. I certainly would. Which would you prefer?

posted by Scott Reynen on September 25, 2006 #

Well now that I’ve commented in the declaratively closed thread (before reading the declaration), I might as well continue…

Anyone can see the world’s messed up and feel bad about it. But if that’s all you’re doing, you’re not helping anyone. Social workers spend their lives helping people like this kid, and I find your criticism of them offensively absurd.

I don’t know anyone else in this thread, so they might all be the heartless bastards you’ve painted them. Or they might be good people who have different ideas about how to help and are acting on those ideas to improve this messed up world. I like to think I’m in the latter group, but I’ll leave it to the people who actually need help to judge whether or not I helped them.

posted by Scott Reynen on September 25, 2006 #

Sorry, but there really is more to be said. It’s obvious to me that the kid’s story is mostly made up, but there may well be elements of truth to it. In particular, I suspect he’s terribly angry at his mother. None of us are really in a position to know all this — whether what he needs most right now is intervention, to get a job, admit he made bad choices, whatever — but here’s a suggestion. You’re compassionate. You know where he lives, sort of. He knows you, and feels comfortable opening up. Go back and talk to him. Let him know that you care what happens to him.

posted by Mike Sierra on September 26, 2006 #

Having a good friend that works as an investigator for the DCF (Department of Child and Family Services) in CT, I would say (1) the person you met may very well be telling the truth, or most of the truth—and (2) these situations are not uncommon.

I’ve spend several nights hanging out with the DCF friend and two of his colleagues (3 people with 30+ years experience between them). After those nights, I spend two or three days waiting for poorer areas to “blow up” w/ pure frustration.

… what you can do is get more first hand experience, through community organizations (volunteer a few hours on a saturday, etc—there’s food banks, etc in Cambridge)—and then let your own curiousity, experiences, lead you to a path of useful action … which in your case may be uniquely useful. Or you can just forget about it … which doesn’t seem likely:)

posted by r prasad on September 26, 2006 #

Having a good friend that works as an investigator for the DCF (Department of Child and Family Services) in CT, I would say (1) the person you met may be telling the truth, or most of the truth—and (2) these homeless situations are not uncommon. (b/c of publicity, I doubt the CT DCF would hold people for money, etc—they do take of the kids as best as possible)

I’ve spent several nights hanging out with the DCF friend and two of his colleagues (3 people with 30+ years experience between them). After those nights, I spend two or three days waiting for poorer areas to “blow up” w/ pure frustration.

… what you can do is get more first hand experience, through community organizations (volunteer a few hours on a saturday, etc—there’s food banks, etc in Cambridge)—and then let your own curiousity, experiences, lead you to a path of useful action … or you can just forget about it … which doesn’t seem likely:)

posted by r prasad on September 26, 2006 #

I don’t know what to tell you, Aaron. Is there anything you can do to improve that guy’s life? Anything at all?

About any part of the story that is true is a lesson in the government screwing people over, from the bulldozers to taking away the violin (and by the way, if that part is true, are we to believe he also plays the violin?).

Mark’s comment about the man with the story of the broken car reminds me:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a street beggar in Portland, so I was pretty unused to them when I was in Cambridge for Wikimania last month. I ignored the ones that sat on the sidewalks and rattled paper cups full of change. So I didn’t hear any stories from any of them. I don’t think it was really in my power to help them, and — Aaron is going to hate me for this, no doubt — it wasn’t really my responsibility. However, I did give away money to someone exactly once. I was sitting on a park-bench one night, writing something in my notepad, when this man casually walks up and says, “Good evening sir, can you spare a dollar?”. Now, although I had been ignoring impoverished beggars all week long, somehow I found myself giving this man a dollar. I didn’t even think about it! By the time I realized, “I just gave that man a dollar!”, he was gone, so I couldn’t ask him how he’d tricked me into doing it. I think it was that he was friendly, well-dressed, walked up to me, and addressed me the way an ordinary guy from my own social class would. So I feel a bit guilty about that.

This is only tangentially related: As a small-town boy, I was pretty surprised how safe I felt in Boston at night. My own back porch is creepy at night because it’s so empty — not a soul is stirring and all the doors are locked. This may have been foolish, but I walked all over the town in the middle of the night with my laptop in my backpack. Before I went, I had expected the street to feel threatening, but it didn’t.

You don’t mind if I go on and on about my week in a big city, do you? I’ve never seen so many police officers, either. In the Portland area, the only cops you see are lurking at intersections trying to catch speeders. Over there there were pedestrian cops patrolling the sidewalks. I actually felt like they were on my side for once. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe in concentrations of power. But I got the impression somehow that the cops in Boston were doing a worthy job.

Anyhow. I don’t see why you insist, for the sake of the discussion even, on supposing that his story is true. It’s not that I think it matters if it’s true — you should still try to help him if you feel that’s right. But exactly how you can best help him probably depends on whether the story is true or not, and it’s not.

One last thing: You had an essay about new software that hasn’t reappeared yet. Is it going to or have you dropped it? I am really interested in your thoughts on this. Thanks.

Wait… if the thread is closed, does that mean Aaron is going to see this?

posted by David McCabe on September 26, 2006 #

Another place you might find him is over by the pit behind the escalators leading down to the Harvard Square T stop.

posted by Mike Sierra on September 26, 2006 #


I talk about my actions towards homeless and beggars at the URL above. That his story is totally factual is almost completely not true. But there is surely some facts involved in his story. Would money have helped? probably not.. but what would have? Only knowing him more would have given you the ability to know perhaps some of an answer to that question. Why not go hang out with him? make him a friend. It sometimes works.

posted by Craig Sawyer on October 11, 2006 #

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