A fool and his money are not soon parted
An experiment in generosity, cynicism
On Wednesday, as he has on April Fools’ Day for the past 23 years, Alex Feldman walked around Boston and attempted to give money to strangers.
Just hand it to them.
Here you go.
And as always, Feldman, who lives in Somerville and makes his living as a fool every other day of the year — he performs as Alex the Jester all over the world — proved that it is, in fact, very difficult to persuade a stranger to take money on April Fools' Day.
“What’s the catch?” he was asked over and over.
“There isn’t one,” Feldman answered again and again.
Still, few people were willing to move the final inches to take the money from his outstretched hand.
The April Fools' giveaway — which Feldman said was conceived out of “mischief” but has since grown into a strange social experiment — began in the early ’90s when Feldman was street-performing in Faneuil Hall and Harvard Square. Each year, he would do a street show, collect his tips, not count them, and then attempt to give the money away.
“It has always been a way to have real drama with people at a low cost,” said Feldman, who usually offers a dollar or two, though he will occasionally pop a five or ten out of the bag. “Someone once said to me, ‘How much have you lost with this gag?’ I’ve never lost. I’ve gained so much for so little.”
And something he has gained, unfortunately, is an appreciation for how suspicious we are of one another.
“Our social norms dictate that you look the other way,” he said, “and it has become even worse in the era of text neck where people can’t even be bothered to look up from their phones to have a real human encounter.”
Indeed, in three hours on Wednesday, as he made his way from Harvard Square to downtown Boston, with swings on the Red Line and the Orange Line, Feldman and his brown paper bag full of money encountered vastly more resistance than acceptance.
Well over 90 percent of people wanted nothing to do with him or the greenbacks he was waving. Parents shielded their children from him. Several people aggressively told him to get out of their face.
Even after those encounters when he had enough time to explain what he was doing — typically something like “I’m a fool, and I’m giving away money on April Fools' Day” — most people would not bite.
The few who did take the money, like C.J. Young, who was eating his lunch on a bench in Post Office Square when Feldman approached with three dollars in his hand, required convincing.
“Can I talk to you for a moment?” Feldman said. “I’m giving away free money today.”
“I’m all set,” Young said as he looked at Feldman suspiciously.
Eventually, Feldman won Young over. “You hate to be so skeptical,” Young said as he reached out his arm so slowly you’d think it was encased in quicksand, “but how often does someone try to give you free money?”
For the small percentage of people who accepted the money happily, with a warm smile and a thank you, a trend emerged: Many said they were going to pay it forward and give the money to someone else, like a homeless person. (Feldman gave money to each homeless person he passed, but they weren’t the target of the experiment.)
“I’m going to pass joy,” yelled a man on the Orange Line who had just accepted two dollars from Feldman, “what you passed to me.”
As Feldman made his way back to Harvard Square, where he had parked his unicycle at the start of the day, he was trailed by an audience on the Red Lane train, people who had heard what he was up to while waiting on the platform and wanted to see this social experiment in action.
Rose Wang was one of them. She had recently graduated from Harvard with a psychology degree, and she was fascinated to watch the friendly man in the jester hat get rebuffed, again and again.
“People seem to either think he’s crazy, or that it’s an April Fools' joke. They’re waiting for something else to happen,” Wang said before she finally asked if she could try. Her theory was that people would behave differently if it was a woman trying to give them money — a woman who was not wearing a jester hat. She was wrong.
As she made her way down the subway car with a dollar in her outstretched hand, her reception looked more like she was asking for money than giving it.
People said no. People waved her away. After nearly two dozen cold encounters, she found a person to take the dollar.
As Wang sat down again across from Feldman, she was dumbstruck. “People looked at me like I was crazy,” she said as she missed her stop so she could keep watching the drama unfold.
Another woman sitting next to Feldman said they were doing it wrong, asked for a dollar, and took off for the other end of the train. She returned minutes later shaking her head, the dollar bill still in her hand.
As Feldman emerged into The Pit outside the Harvard Square T stop, he said he could understand the skepticism. Skepticism is healthy, he said. Cynicism is not.
“I want to un-pair skepticism and cynicism,” he said.
And with that, he set off to find where he’d locked his unicycle.