Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Magnificent Mendicants of Austria


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Top: The "Painted Lady" of Innsbruck, Austria. She looks exactly like a statue - totally immobile - until you put money in her small basket, whereupon she comes to life, bows, and then curtsies. We estimated she probably earned about 300 euros (390 U.S. dollars) per day for each day we saw her. "Charlie Chaplin" meanwhile  turned in his gig of an eloquent bow and small dance, at the corner of the Friedrichstrasse and the main alley leading to a former synagogue. We estimated he probably took in 150-200 eu /day.
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The Painted Lady's small dog- above- - which she keeps wrapped in swaddling blankets in a basket while she performs to earn some euros for his kibbles. The dog may well be a bigger attraction - or at least as big - as she is - and certainly helps bringing in those extra euros! Lower pic - the Lady comes to life after I drop one euro into her basket.

One unusual thing we beheld in Austria, at least in Salzburg and Innsbruck, was a plethora of elegant mendicants or beggars, as they might be called in the U.S.  Those who are otherwise unemployed and depend on the charity of others to earn their daily bread. In this case, by use of elaborate costumes and performances. Allowed to ply their trades in assorted locations in both Innsbruck and Salzburg, these creative performers - which is really what they were- never disappointed.  Each street character, whether the "Headless Puppet", Painted Lady and "Charlie Chaplin" in Innsbruck, or "Mozart", and assorted RC "Cardinals" in Salzburg, knew their stuff and how to beg with aplomb - while not seeming to beg.

This is an art form, make no mistake. Having seen how panhandlers operate in cities from Miami to New Orleans to San Francisco to Baltimore, they could take a lesson or two from the magnificent mendicants of Austria.  These interesting street characters understand how gauche and unseemly it would be to simply beg, so they turn their need for money into practical street theatrics. Given this, they invest in costumes or uniforms as well as cultivating distinct identities - with appropriate,  correlated artistic performances-  as opposed to bare bones beggaring.

One pointed attribute stands out above all others: There are NO aggressive moves toward any passersby - even if you (and your spouse) are the only ones in the vicinity. Every single mendicant performer respects his or her "guests" (even if they tacitly ignore the costume or act) and also refrains from  meandering into other mendicants' staked out realms.  These are very important aspects!

I've always noticed in the U.S. cities mentioned,  apart from having no shtick or costume, most panhandlers  approach rapidly and aggressively  toward their targets and either scare them off, or turn them off. Thereby they forfeit a possible buck, and are bucked in their pleas instead. They fail to grasp that if one goes into begging, at any level, some type of social interface is needed to ease the transaction.

A costume and a shtick (some performing act - singing, dancing etc.) can also help by deflecting the inevitable attention away from the implicit begging itself.  In this way, the Euro beggars appear to have achieved something their U.S. counterparts can only dream of, i.e. encouraging passersby who willingly put out cold hard cash for what they believe - and actually are - receiving! So it's not a one-way take. (I will admit there are some areas of some U.S., cities where a similar thing is done, often with musicians playing in subways or whatever, but it is more the exception than rule).

In the case of both "Chaplin" and the Painted Lady (and her dog) in Innsbruck, I believe I delivered at least 4 euros in total to them, probably two to each. Then, over in Salzburg, I estimate I gave at least one euro to a Catholic prelate ( "Cardinal")  who was about to drag a "heretic" (dummy) before his Inquisition, and another 2 eu. to a "Mozart" giving an excellent rendition of the Violin Sonata in B-flat. Oh, I also gave one euro to the Headless Puppet in Salzburg.

The magnificent mendicants of Austria are an excellent example of how people can work in cooperation to earn a living by performing - despite the fact that for one reason or other the society itself won't grant them a paying gig. So, they create their own gigs!

What will their futures be? Will they be able to go on like this indefinitely? We don't know. One can only hope the U.S. spy, anti-terror Empire doesn't extend its malefic reach into Innsbruck and Salzburg, declare these fine people "terrorists" (for not earning a living the Neoliberal, market way) and then dispatch Predator drones to take them out.

THAT would be a genuine tragedy, and a loss for Austrian humanity as well as the larger world's.

Kudos to all the Austrian street characters, who made our stay in Austria much more interesting and enriched than it otherwise would have been (especially as we were plagued with such dreary weather most of the time, blotting out the best views of the mountains.)

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