MIND THE GAP. Beggars on the Tube.

Today I caught a District Line train. I didn’t have anywhere to go, I just needed to activate my monthly Oyster card bundle and get out of the house, so I packed my Kindle and went on a pointless tube ride. Something weird happened on that tube. It might not have seemed weird to anyone else there, but it was weird to me. There’s that prerecorded woman’s voice that informs you of upcoming stations and tells you to mind the gap. That voice came on and said “There are beggars and buskers operating on this train. Please do not encourage their presence by supporting them.” Calm, even, sanitised, as always. A neutral voice. It then proceeded to repeat the message over and over, like a stuck record. The same message also scrolled repeatedly across the LED tickers and after a while, the speaker crackled on and the train driver chimed in, warning all passengers not to part with their money.

I was taken aback. Imagine being a beggar on a moving train and having that happen while you’re in the process of asking strangers for small change. You’re already vulnerable and desperate, you can’t get off and slink away, you can’t do anything. The beggars and/or buskers weren’t on my carriage, so I couldn’t see their reactions or how they had been begging. You do get chancers, obviously – entitled kids wanting free cigarettes – but I wasn’t imagining those sorts of beggars and I couldn’t help feeling incredibly uncomfortable. It was dehumanising. Announcing it once would be awkward enough, but repeatedly forcing the message using all possible channels made it seem like there was a war going on; the commuters against the beggars.

Begging on Cape Town’s trains is common. I caught those trains to and from University for years and experienced begging in a number of forms. If you want to give, you give. If you don’t want to, or you can’t, you don’t. Most of the time, the beggars aren’t aggressive. They’re just people in need. I’ve experienced begging on the London underground only once before. The woman wasn’t disruptive or rude. She put small paper notes and packs of scented tissues on the armrests as she made her way down the carriage. The notes explained her situation and asked anyone who was willing to help her to buy the tissues. Then she walked back up the carriage, collecting the things and trading some of the tissues for small change as she went. I was imagining her when that announcement started looping.

Of course there’s another side to this story, and of course these things can get out of hand and become a problem, and of course I understand all of that, but the experience left me feeling a bit cold nonetheless, and the iconic phrase “MIND THE GAP” took on a new meaning.

[Also posted on The Uncooperative Umbrella.]

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