The next block was empty, except for a street violinist, who played indifferently well. They each gave him a quarter, Sam borrowing from Max, and walked on. The following block contained a beggar, who, like the Viet Nam vet, had a placard, which was so placed that they could not read it until they were quite close to him. However, they had noticed that passersby tended to choose a circuitous route around him. The reason for this became clear when they had come close enough to read his placard, which read simply “AIDS.”
At this period, the early-80’s, a diagnosis of AIDS was equivalent to a death sentence and they accordingly looked at the man with a mixture of macabre interest and pity. A glance was enough to dismiss any thoughts that he might be shamming. He was extremely emaciated and he had acquired the semi-translucent look sometimes seen in very old people. Unlike the first beggar, he had made no effort to conceal what he had collected, which was not very substantial. Ralph and Max each gave him a dollar and received a muttered “Thank you” in exchange; Sam, who disliked people prone to acquire AIDS, walked past without looking at him. As they walked past, Max glanced briefly back at the man, to find that he was being regarded with a look of such intense hatred that he felt a pulse of something akin to pain.
After a minute or two, they put aside depressing thoughts and resumed the conversation. Max began: “I suspect that creativity is more widely distributed than we think. Most people have at least a little and it’s always struggling to get loose. If you have more than a little and don’t use it, it will drive you crazy.”
“I tend to agree,” said Ralph. It’s unfortunate that most occupations have so little scope for it. Maybe that’s why we have so many bitter old people. What chance do these people, for example, have to be creative?” “They’re a special case, surely,” said Sam. “I doubt if creativity could appear here. But I think that it can arise in very ordinary jobs. The prison warden that controlled rebellious inmates by feeding them baby food, instead of bread and water, showed creativity of a sort.”
They were now approaching the small plaza in the center of the Zone. To their surprise, and in contrast to the blocks they had passed through, they saw a bustle of activity, which was centered about a particular point, where a small crowd appeared to be milling around. People seemed to be walking past and then returning, as if they had unfinished business there. However, having returned, they did not linger, but soon resumed walking.
The crowd was sufficiently dense that they had had to wedge their way through it before they could see what the center of attraction was. They were surprised to see that it was only another beggar. This one was unexceptional in appearance, looking in fact perfectly ordinary, except for being blind. Like the other two, he had set up a placard. He had received so many donations that a plate did not suffice to hold the money he had collected, so that he was forced to use a basket. People would often pass by, pause, and then walk back to drop something in the basket.
However, our three men did not have to hesitate. Upon reading the beggar’s placard, all three gave a two-digit sum. Even Sam contributed his 10-dollar bill. Moreover, as they walked on afterwards, they all felt a curious sense of exaltation, as if they had done something noble and beautiful. They were silent for some time, until they were stopped some distance from the crowd by an elderly woman, who asked what was going on.
“It’s only a beggar,” said Max. “It’s his placard that’s the attraction.”
“What on earth does it say?”
“It is May and I am blind.”
The woman thanked them and made her way towards the crowd. The three men continued their walk. There was no further talk of creativity; it would have been redundant.