The kid had staked out a patch of sidewalk and was working the steady stream of locals and foreigners passing through. The limits of his territory were the entrance to a restaurant popular with foreigners and that of a convenience store ten meters further up. He wore a stained blue t-shirt and ragged sweatpants with a scuffed seat that sagged from his rear end. His feet were bare. He was perhaps ten years old. Hard living had thinned his face, and it was hard to tell. He could have been two years older and desperately malnourished, or two years younger and a bit precocious.
It was a good patch to work. The two businesses and the luxury hotel across the street ensured steady, well-monied traffic. But it was a hard job nonetheless. Most people were completely indifferent to the kid, and those who weren’t tended to be hostile, either scolding him or batting him away. A chinese man smacked him in the head. One large westerner mocked him, cupping his hands in the same alms-receiving gesture as the kid and pretending to beg back.
Through it all the kid stayed remarkably cheery. He was a natural showman, sassing the people who ran him off the steps and bursting into histrionics in front of marks. When he wasn’t actually working a mark he had a perpetually bright smile on his face. He had perfected a positive mental attitude; a mighty feat for a ten year-old Beijing beggar with poor prospects. He was not going to be one of the new China’s winners. He was going to be a loser. It was inevitable. He probably couldn’t see his future, but I could take a guess at it. Juvenile crime, perhaps, as he eased into more aggressive teenage years. Maybe addiction, another victim of the river of heroin coming over the Burmese border at Ruili or in from Central Asia. If he was lucky he might end up a migrant laborer, drifting from city to city in search of work. If he was unlucky he would end up in jail, or in a quarry with a bullet in the back of his head. Or perhaps he would just go on to a career as a begger, another one of the shabby, hopeless men who stalk intersections and tourist hangouts. But he kept smiling. He could have been subject of a motivational poster on perseverance, adorning a conference room somewhere.
The kid was energetic and fidgety and had a hard time sitting still. That wasn’t entirely his own fault. Every time he settled on the steps of the restaurant or the store an attendant would be out within moments to shoo him away. A woman from the store tried to engage him. Earlier she had scolded the kid, but now she wanted to talk. Perhaps telling him that he should find something more productive to do with his time. He chatted with her for four or five minutes before she went inside. When she came out again, it was with a switch to run him off the steps again. He had given the wrong answer.
The kid wasn’t alone. His minder was a fat woman in clean clothes who sat across the street on a low stone wall in front of the hotel. She had a second young boy with her as well, about the same age, but he was the favored child. His clothes were clean and he didn’t have to beg. Instead, he sat with the woman, holding two empty plastic bottles. Occasionally, he would come over and give the kid some trouble. For a while the woman sent the kid across the street to work the front of an expensive ice cream parlor, but perhaps traffic was bad because he was soon back working the stretch of sidewalk between the restaurant and the convenience store.
And the kid had some luck. Three people, all women, gave him cash. A few yuan, which the kid counted carefully before stuffing into the pocket of his sweats. Part of the kid’s repertoire was pointing at his mouth and asking for food, and one woman gave him a wrapped piece of something that looked like a slice of cake. But the kid didn’t get to eat it. The better dressed boy was across the street in moments, demanding the cake. The kid handed it over, possibly along with a smart-ass remark because he ended up taking a swift kick. The better-dressed boy took the cake across the street to the fat woman. She clearly got all the cake. It seemed likely that she was going to get the money too.
There was another beggar working the same strip of sidewalk as the kid. A middle-aged woman in the standard beggar’s outfit: blue cotton coat, white towel wrapped around her head, shoulder bag, stick and white enamel cup. She had perfected the beggar’s misery-ridden shuffle but once, as she crossed the street, an approaching taxi forced her to break character and she hustled energetically out of the way. The begging woman didn’t compete with the kid. She was a practitioner of the “persistence” approach, shadowing a mark for fifty or a hundred meters tugging at the sleeve and shaking the few coins in the enamel cup. She would return to the space of sidewalk between the restaurant and store for a minute, but often follow marks to the end of the block or cross the street to work people in front of the hotel. The kid would stay put and focus on his small patch.
The begging woman and the fat woman seemed to be friends. Once, the fat woman and the well-dressed boy crossed the street and the three of them gathered under a poplar tree for a congenial chat. How’s business? Who’s giving it up tonight? Is the kid pulling his weight? A couple of promising looking groups walked by during the conversation and the begging woman gave a couple of desultory shakes of her enamel cup, but it was clearly coffee break and her heart wasn’t in it. Meanwhile the kid hovered at the edge of the conversation, restless, nervous, and pointedly not invited into the little circle.
After a few minutes the conversation broke up. The fat woman and well dressed boy returned to their perch in front of the hotel. The begging woman shadowed another group of foreigners. And the kid went back to miming hunger and clasping his hands in front of the groups leaving the restaurant and going into and out of the convenience store. Somehow, he was still smiling.