Leave it to the New York Times to ruin a good story and mess up my
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
That knocked me out. I thought Soapy had the living racket
solved. He was everything I aspired toindolent, 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
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 himanything except throw him into the briar
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
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
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.