05/14/2012 10:47 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

The Law of the Subway

I thought the MTA regulations of prohibiting soliciting on the subway were harsh until recently. A few days ago, I was doing my daily commute on the E train when I saw a woman limping into the car I was in. She was holding a cardboard sign that read, "PLEASE HELP NO JOB NEED FOOD FOR MY BABY." Her left breast was partially exposed and her son was suckling on it as she limped around the car and asked for money. Almost everyone in my car, including myself, gave her a dollar.

She then moved onto the next car and as I looked through the window I could see that she was being given about the same amount of money in the next car. I began to lose sympathy for her as I realized that she was making a lot of money in a matter of minutes. However, I decided that I had done the right thing in giving her money and exited as the train approached my stop. As I walked along the platform, I was startled to see the woman zipping past me with quick strides. Her cardboard sign was gone and her fist was bursting with money, which she quickly stuffed into her wallet (which was bursting with even more money). She then headed to the lower levels of the stop in order to reach the orange line and I realized that she was probably about to do her routine on another train. As I scanned her further, I saw that her clothes were not ragged and that she was very clean. The hopeless expression on her face was gone and so was her limp. I felt angry with this woman but more than anything I felt pity for her son. I can only imagine what kind of life he is bound to.

I am not sure if the MTA formed their warnings and regulations against soliciting on the subways for these kinds of reasons. I realized that this was just one case but it made me wonder if all the other women and men I had seen doing the same thing during my commute were con artists as well. I only caught this particular woman in the act by chance but the image she evoked was far too familiar. I believe this puts the charitable commuter in a tough position. How can you know which people are really in need of the money? Is it on you if you give to someone who didn't really need the money and ignored someone who did need it? Is it best just to follow the MTA regulation and not give at all? These questions swirled around in my head and I honestly still haven't decided what to do.

I did some research and discovered that some of these subway con artists have managed to make more than $50,000 a year and that many of them make more than $20,000. These seemed like big figures until I remembered that the woman I saw had made almost $20 in a matter of minutes. If she spent every day going from car to car and getting that kind of money than it would be very possible to make a living from this kind of artful begging. I suppose I will just exercise caution from now on and try to make sure I give to people who aren't conning me. Furthermore, I wonder what I should do if I ever encounter that woman again.