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The Truth, Mainly - 06/20/1994

Tale of modern-day Soapy upsets inner tranquility

Leave it to the New York Times to ruin a good story and mess up my inner tranquility.

The story is "The Cop and the Anthem" written by O. Henry back in the first decade of the century. When I was in high school, I reckoned it was just about the best story there ever was.

It's about a bum called Soapy, a name I found wonderfully ironic given his aversion to bathing. Soapy sleeps on New York City park benches most of the year, but when it gets cold he deliberately commits some minor crime carefully calibrated to get him three months in jail where he stays warm and well-fed until spring.

His favorite offense is "to dine luxuriously at some expensive restaurant and then, after declaring insolvency, be handed over quietly and without uproar to a policeman. An accomodating magistrate would do the rest."

That knocked me out. I thought Soapy had the living racket solved. He was everything I aspired to—indolent, laid back, uncontaminated by Boy Scout morality. His was exactly the kind of carefree, irresponsible existence I figured I was cut out for.

But now comes the New York Times with an end-of-the-century version of the Soapy story. The main character is named Gangaram Mahes, and the Times reports his story as fact, not fiction.

Mahes is a "serial diner," a guy who dresses well enough to get into good Manhattan restaurants where he eats $50 meals he can't pay for, then gets sentenced to 90 days in a cell on Rikers Island.

He likes it that way. He prefers life in a cell to life in a cardboard box over a heat grate.

"It's tough on the outside," the Times quotes Mahes as saying. "I like to live decent. I like to be clean."

"What's that?" my inner Stereotypist asks, sounding the first note of discord. "Derelicts don't like being dirty?"

My inner High School Kid, though, is still charmed. Here's a non-violent guy, he says, who's not doing any real harm except to restaurants that probably charge too much anyway.

But the Times goes on to tell us more than O. Henry ever did.

Mahes' record shows he's pled guilty 31 times now to the charge of eating expensive meals and not paying for them. And here's the kicker:

"It costs taxpayers $162 a day to feed, clothe and house Mahes at Rikers Island. His 90-day sentence will cost them $14,580 to punish him for refusing to pay the $51.31 check."

At that news, my inner Old Geezer inhales sharply and begins poking his finger in my inner High School Kid's chest. "No man is an island!" he yells. "Your hero is costing me money! Get a job!"

My inner Republican Fat Cat gives my inner Old Geezer a high five.

Meanwhile, my inner Fiscal Conservative has been crunching numbers and says it's isn't very cost effective to spend $14,580 to punish someone for a $51.31 crime. He says we could save $14,528.69 by simply picking up Mahes' tab for him. Doing well, he says with a wink, by doing good.

The Truth, Mainly


But my inner Law 'n' Order Criminologist snorts. What happens to Mahes' incentive to obey the law if society picks up his tab for him? My inner Logician points out that as long as he prefers living in a cell to living in a cardboard box over a heat grate, Mahes will have no incentive to obey the law anyway.

That's when my inner Social Worker yells that nothing will do any good until we give Mahes some self respect. We need to get him a job, perhaps devising anti-ripoff safeguards for restaurants that charge $50 for dinner, or maybe writing ironic short stories about derelicts who beat the system by going to jail.

Awakened by the mention of irony, my inner Joseph Heller suggests a penological catch-22: You can go to jail only if you don't want to; if you want to, you can't. And my inner Joel Chandler Harris says yeah but what if you say you don't want to when you really do? He cites the precedent of Brer Rabbit giving Brer Fox permission to cook him or hang him or drown him or skin him—anything except throw him into the briar patch.

The literary talk is too much for my inner Drill Sergeant who blows his whistle and tells the others to shut up and just follow orders. "It's not for us grunts to decide," he says. "Just go along with the chain of command."

"But how," my inner High School Kid whimpers, "can I ever enjoy 'The Cop and the Anthem' again?" When my inner Drill Sergeant tells him to grow up and stop reading kid stories, the boy goes to the brink of hysteria.

Before he falls off the edge, I pour a shaky cup of coffee and turn to the sports page. I take a deep breath, get all single-minded again and wait for inner tranquility to set in. Then I read about something called the World Cup in Chicago. I don't know what the hell's going on anymore.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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