Pardon me, sir or ma'am. I don't mean to be a bother. I wonder if you could find it in your heart to help me out. I just need a few minutes of your time while I tell you this story. Won't you help me?
Oh, you will? Thank you so much. God bless. I promise this won't be too long.
First, some history...
About nine years ago in college, a young guy on the street approached me as I was walking into a pharmacy. He said he was trying to get a few dollars together so he could afford a bus ticket back to New York (the city, presumably; this was in Poughkeepsie). There was no sob story, he was very nonchalant about it. I shrugged and gave him a ten, thinking nothing of it. He said thanks and moved on.
A couple of years ago while I was out with some friends on a pretty cold night in Albany, we were approached by an older woman who appeared to be crying, snot freezing to her face. She pleaded and virtually prostrated herself, asking if she could just get a few dollars so she could get back to Troy to be with her kids. My friends both said sorry. I caved and handed over either a five or ten dollar bill, I forget which.* She said god bless and moved on.
Last year while moving into my new apartment I was approached by, if I may describe him in the most mild and flattering way possible, a somewhat disheveled man. He gestured to his lady-friend across the street, who I can say in all sincerity was even less attractive than he was, and said they needed some help with... hell, I don't know. I had a handful of quarters in my pocket. I was saving them for the bus and to use at the laundromat, but gave most of them to him saying I was sorry I couldn't give him more. I neglected to specify that by 'more' I meant 'a vicious kick in the testicles.'
*: I'm not a frequent bus traveler, but by my rough estimate a bus trip to Troy from Albany shouldn't cost much more than five dollars. We saw her not five minutes later on another street corner approaching some young couple.
Tonight, as I was parking in front of the grocery store, I had barely put the vehicle in park when a man walked up on the passenger side to get my attention. If I had to explain my motivation for rolling the window down, I'd say "morbid curiosity and a bit of passive masochism." He asked how well I knew the area and explained in kind of a disoriented manner how everyone around Albany are such assholes who won't talk to him. I asked if he needed directions or something, and that I wouldn't be much help. He clarified that he actually just needed some money. He talked about how he feels bad, that his parents didn't raise him like this and so on. He just needed about seventeen dollars to get to... I don't know. I don't care. Unless he's the worst man on Earth at booking travel, he didn't need that much to get where he was going, and even if he did, the idea that he was so poor at managing money that he got himself stranded in an unfamiliar part of upstate New York with not enough cash to his name to get back where he came from makes him extraordinarily difficult to sympathize with.
I apologized to the man, saying I didn't have any change or small bills on me. He helpfully added that he had change and could break a larger bill. Being the poor liar I am, I shifted gears a bit and said awkwardly that I don't really carry much cash, which is partly true aside from the fact that I did have at least fifty dollars in cash with me at that moment. He continued to persist, moreover to guilt me into helping, as though I was the one putting someone else out by not helping a complete stranger.
Please let me clarify at this moment, I went into this encounter with good intentions. There was no malice in my heart. I simply knew I could not trust this man, and that if by even the remotest chance he was lying to me, the money I would have given him would be hurting him, not helping. I had no desire to ignore him, to denigrate and dehumanize him for his misfortune, but he was being actively challenging and even insulting to me, because I implicitly questioned the intentions of a complete stranger asking for money.
I may not be the most brazen or confrontational person on the planet (though I guess I'm pretty good at understatement), but were I in his position I wouldn't have had the stones to guilt the person I was asking for money from, as though I were somehow on the moral high ground in that instance. The boldness with which this man lied irked me. So, I did him the courtesy he couldn't do me: I looked him in the eye and told him the truth.
These are the exact words I said to him next:
"I think you're lying to my face."
I was honestly hoping he wasn't prepared for that response. I wasn't abusive, I didn't tell him to get a job or call him names. I simply stated the simple fact that I couldn't trust his words. He proceeded to stand his ground and insist on his honesty, and essentially say I was being ignorant for not showing some compassion.
I stopped looking at him and stopped talking to him. As I got out of my vehicle, he went on calling after me, "Your dad taught you that, that's all. Your dad taught you that." I don't recall my dad ever commenting on giving money to people on the street before, but I rather wish he'd been here tonight, because unlike me he would have had the nerve to tell this guy off. Or break his nose.
The sad thing is, I really did feel for that man. I wouldn't have rolled my window down if I didn't on some level care about this stranger who was clearly not having an easy go in life. That's why this is so difficult. I know there's not a thing I can do to help that man, because regardless of whatever other bad luck has been thrown at him, there's still a bigger underlying problem: himself. He tried to convince me he was just a decent guy who needed a hand up. He said his family didn't raise him to be like this. The obvious question in response to that should be, "Then why are you here? Where are they? Where is this good and decent family who raised you right, now that you need help? Where are any of your friends at a moment like this? What happened in your life that landed you here, all alone, with no one else to count on?"
As you may have guessed, I have the answers to those questions already. It's not possible that his family just flat-out deserted him unfairly. If they 'raised him right' as he claims, they never would have done such a thing. That leaves us three possibilities that I can think of.
- They're all dead. I'm sorry, but I won't accept this as realistic to expect, especially when there's no part of his sob story that claims anyone in his life passed away and left him alone with nothing. You'd think everybody he ever counted on dying in some freak accident or something would have worked its way into his pitch at some point.
- They're of no help to him because they have even less money to give. That kind of begs the question why he left them in the first place. If anything, they really need to stick together while he and/or other family members look for work so they can afford basic things like bus fare. Impromptu bus trips across the great northeast are doing no one any favors.
- They're decent people who have cut him off because they're sick and tired of being taken advantage of.
I'm not heartless. I'm aware. I've seen enough people like this, both in person and on the news. These are not honest industrious people who want to make it work but can't catch a break. They're lying scumbags who are content to get by taking money from strangers because they'd rather not have the stress and responsibilities of actually trying to do a damn thing with their lives that benefits anyone else in any possible way.
We've all seen people who truly have it rough and can't catch a break. They're not on the street begging. They're working crap part-time jobs trying to keep food on the table. They're on government assistance, and feel guilty doing it. They're sleeping on a family member's living room floor or at a shelter because they can't afford rent and haven't found work yet. Most of all, if they're at all smart and humble they have realized the obvious: if you stand on the street asking for money, you look like someone who has thrown away every other opportunity. You look like a drunk, or an addict, or both. You look like someone who has no one to care about and cares about no one but yourself.
I'm not saying it's easy out there. Obviously, I'm someone who comes from more than my fair share of privilege, so I can't truly relate to what it's like not being able to pay the bills, having to lose your home, not knowing where you can turn for a chance to get back on your feet. But one thing I know for sure is that a hell of a lot of people fall into the category known as the "working poor" and are trying every day to make it work. With so many support networks out there for decent people truly in need of help, with so many folks who are either too kind, too proud, or too smart to ask for that help from random strangers on the street, it's hard to have any sympathy left for those individuals who still can't see any other option than begging.
And just so we're clear, I am not lumping in homeless veterans (or other individuals suffering with untreated mental illness and related issues that prevent them from holding down a job) with the likes of beggars. Despite all my white-middle-class-ness, I can honestly say I do know at least a thing or two about what it's like to have serious mental episodes that legitimately threaten one's ability to perform at a job and otherwise function in day-to-day life. I've missed days of work because of depression. I lost out on the latter part of a valuable paid internship because I had a panic attack and physically couldn't stay in the building. As critical as I can be of the quality of mental healthcare in this country, I wish to god everybody had ready access to it, because there is a lot that can be done to help most of these people if only somebody would foot the bill for their insurance. In fact, I'm going to take the $20 I could have given that guy in the parking lot and donate it to a homeless veterans' charity as soon as I'm done writing this.
My point is: I have sympathy for other people, even strangers, but I'm not dumb. More to the point, I'm no longer anxious enough to give money to somebody who confronts me just to make them go away, or to get over the mild discomfort of feeling unjustifiably guilty. Every time I've given money to somebody on the street since the first time, I've always felt dirty afterward. I knew I wasn't helping them. Even if by some freak chance that person did use the money as intended, and my kindness somehow reinvigorated their spirit and inspired them to turn their life around, that's not why I gave the money. I did it to make myself feel better, and that's not generous, it's cowardly.
I won't be that cowardly anymore. I can't promise I'll be helpful or friendly to every person I come across, but I'll be damned if I give any more money out on the street.
So, there it is. Thanks for reading this far if you have. If anyone disagrees with me, feel free to state your case in the comments. I will be reading them. Good luck out there. Peace and love, you crazy kids.