I was running a little late for a doctor’s appointment myself. As I often do, I had to park at the far end of the lot and walk about 200 yards to the medical center. A few rows ahead along my path was a young woman about 30 years old sitting on the open tailgate of what appeared to be a Ford Bronco. She stood up quickly as I approached. She looked distressed. I had little doubt she was going to ask me for money.
“I need to get there by 11:30 or I’ll miss my appointment and I’m out of gas.” She was nearly in tears. “Can you please help me out? A dollar or two, anything would help.”
The only cash I had was a twenty-dollar bill and I certainly wasn’t going to give her that. But even if I had been carrying something smaller, I probably still wouldn’t have given her anything. It wasn’t always that way. I’ve had a long and evolving relationship with strangers asking for money. There was a time when giving money to those in need was a kind of spiritual obligation. Helping the poor and downtrodden is the most common of all religious commandments and, despite the kind of soft atheism I embraced at the time, I believed in it. I took it so seriously that I used to make a point of carrying cash in small bills — singles and fives, usually. I would keep the bills loose in my front pocket so I could give them away quickly, without the risk of exposing my wallet during awkward street transactions.
Looking back, my motives for giving away money weren’t always pure. I loved handing out the fives. The recipients were always grateful, and their gratitude stroked my ego. I patted myself on the back for being more of a Christian than those who professed to be Christian. I was a good guy, doing good things in the world. I remember once I was with my now ex-wife and I gave a high spirited young man a five-dollar bill. He smiled broadly, turned to my wife and asked, “Can I kiss him?”
Along the way, I noticed that some people who asked for money didn’t always look like they needed it. Perhaps it’s an unfair bias, but I expect anyone asking for a handout to look like they’ve been sleeping in the park for a few days. At the very least they should be disheveled. Some people looked like they were dropped off from the suburbs by their carpool. I remember being approached once by a heavy-set teen in front of a 7-11. He wore a nylon jacket with the Nike logo and carried a boom box on his shoulder. There was nothing about him that suggested financial need. Yet, there was plenty about him that suggested he was out of both cigarettes and allowance money.
“Hey, can you spare some change?”
I can’t remember, but I may have laughed at him. Whatever my initial reaction, I declined, even though I had plenty of change. I believe that was the first time I refused someone’s request for money.
I also began to hear stories about people who were pretending to be in need who were either supplementing their income or who were outright making a living from panhandling. I never verified any of these stories but they seemed plausible enough.
Over time I started saying no more often. I even began to distrust people who looked homeless. How did I know they weren’t just thorough in putting on their scam? I’d talked to some people who, rather than giving panhandlers money, offered to buy them food or drop them off at a shelter. The expectation was that they would decline since the real need was for drugs or alcohol. I decided to skip that approach. I mean, what if they agreed? There goes my Saturday afternoon. No, I found it best to stop handing out money altogether. I began with the polite, but airtight excuse of having no cash. Eventually, though, I became quite unpleasant about it. When approached I would just shake my head in irritation and keep walking. I rarely made eye contact. To my amazement, some of them still said, “Have a blessed day, sir.” I wondered why they would do that. I just treated them like shit. If they were nothing more than charlatans trying to play on middle-class guilt, then why be so kind in parting?
After several years of disdain for anyone asking for money, I began to swing back in the other direction. I would make allowances based on nothing more than intuition. Sometimes, a story sounded reasonable. If I sensed that the person asking wasn’t bullshitting me I would give them a few dollars. Sometimes, though, I encountered karma for my years of entitled impatience. On more than one occasion I got my bad attitude handed back to me. I remember a man once at a busy intersection who looked disdainfully at the handful of change I was offering him and said, “I need a lot more than that!” He backed away from my car and tried to get the attention of some of the other drivers. Somehow, I resisted the urge to throw the change at his head as I drove away.
On the day of the appointment with my doctor, I sensed that the woman with the disabled Bronco was really in need. It was pure, gut-level intuition. In my mind, I was judging her. Rather harshly. I regarded the claim that she was given the wrong location as pure bullshit; a ploy to appear victimized by someone else’s incompetence. It’s a game I played to perfection as an active alcoholic many years before. And, who runs out of gas except for someone who lives in a perpetual state of high drama? Never mind that I have run out of gas no less than half a dozen times in as many years. Why? Because I can’t remember to buy gas! The indicator light comes on, I make a mental note to stop as soon as I can, and then promptly forget about it until I’m walking my privileged, over-earning ass to the nearest gas station.
In spite of these judgments, which weren’t doing either of us any good, I believed she was in a jam and really did need to get to the other appointment by 11:30. Nonetheless, I couldn’t bring myself to give her a $20.
I went inside, walked into my doctor’s office and announced my presence to the receptionist. She looked at the schedule and said, “Are you sure you’re supposed to be here today?”
I double-checked the calendar on my phone and, sure enough, I was a week early. What an inconvenience! I had taken the morning off work and felt nothing but irritation at my own poor planning skills. I left the office feeling embarrassed. On my way down to the lobby, I decided to get out of myself and help the woman out if she was still in the parking lot. I decided to stop at the pharmacy on the first floor, break the $20 and give her five. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy. I could buy a bag of M&Ms, but I really didn’t want M&Ms, and it would be silly to buy something just to give someone money. I also didn’t want to wait in line just to ask the cashier to break my $20. So, I reverted to my original decision to keep my money and let the woman solve her own problems.
I walked back out to my car, which was parked…where? Again, I was the victim of my own bad planning. I rarely make a mental note of where I park my car and my remote control stopped working years ago. So I wandered, looking lost and more than a little pathetic.
“It’s over here, one row back.”
It was my friend, back on her tailgate. She was no longer eager and supplicating. She seemed tired and depressed. It was clear she was giving up hope. She was right, though, my car was there, one row back. I thanked her, got in, and drove off. I got part of the way across the lot when it occurred to me that $20 wasn’t too much to give anyone in need. I had wasted many times that amount on frivolities of every sort. $20 dollars wouldn’t even leave a dent in my budget. So, I turned around and drove back up the aisle where she was sitting. I rolled down my window and beckoned her over. I asked her if she still needed help. She said she did. I produced the $20 and gave it to her. I said, “You did me a real favor a few minutes ago and I really appreciate it. I want you to have this. I hope it helps.”
She burst into tears and thanked me profusely. Funny, it didn’t stroke my ego the way it would have in the past. Instead, it just made me feel good to help. It didn’t matter how she got into a jam, it didn’t even matter if she got into jams like that every day. What mattered was that she was in need and I was able to lend a hand.
I plan to continue trusting my intuition. If I can help and my gut says yes, then I will. It’s simple and effective and it keeps me from being cynical about human nature. It also helps to keep me right-sized. Slipping someone a few bucks isn’t heroic, it’s just a decent thing to do.