(The following is an excerpt from Isenberg’s longer essay, “The Autobus Diaries,” which first appeared in Medium. The full story will appear in his forthcoming book, “The Green Season.”)
The man who lumbered aboard seemed to carry years of woe. He was huge and disproportioned. He wore an overlong T-shirt and his highlighted hair was mussed. A deflated backpack was slung over his sunken shoulder. He didn’t sit down. Instead he stood at the front, facing all the passengers, and once the bus lurched forward, he began.
“Good afternoon, damas y caballeros, and God bless you all. My name is José, and I am here because my life has been very hard. Three years ago, some men attacked me in San José, and they beat me nearly to death. I was in the hospital for many weeks, and ever since I have felt great pain. I can’t walk very well, and I have bad headaches. Before the attack, I was going to medical school and wanted to be a doctor. Now I have no home and must sleep in the park.”
He held aloft what appeared to be a plastic golf fish bowl full of lollypops.
“I am selling candy in order to pay for food,” he went on. “With enough money, maybe I will find a home. Please, if you have only 300 colones, you will help me greatly. Thank you all, and God be with you.”
I saw these panhandlers all the time — men and women, all ages and shapes, who stood before the busload of people and recited their grievances in rehearsed monologues. Then they made their way down the aisle, taking coins in their hands. Sometimes they sold things, like breath mints or religious tchotchkes. Other times they asked only for alms.
After several months in Costa Rica, I now knew enough Spanish to follow along. The performance was strange, but stranger still was that people actually dug into their pockets and handed over change. I couldn’t believe how many people parted with their money, and how easily, as if paying a second bus fare. The presentation didn’t seemed to bother the Tico riders. They listened quietly. No one heckled.
As in the U.S., I never gave money, and the panhandlers never asked. Maybe they knew how suspicious Gringos are of homeless people, how they assume that every panhandler is a drug addict and criminal. I don’t believe this, but I just don’t hand out money. It’s a policy. But watching people do it, I reconsidered.
“It’s a Catholic thing,” a physician once explained to my wife Kylan. “Ticos help each other out. People feel obligated to take care of each other, even strangers. Life may be really hard, but nobody starves here. People get by.”