Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

One of the not-so-great things about living in the city and traveling via public transportation is that you can hardly go anywhere without someone begging you for money.

It pains me to be begged for money, because I don't feel right about giving it, but I don’t feel right about not giving it, either.

For years, I have tried unsuccessfully to develop a one-size-fits-all strategy for how to handle The Begging Problem, because when someone approaches me on the street, I don’t want to agonize over whether to give or not to give. I want to have my rule and apply it, period.

My friend Lori has her rule, and she sticks to it. She will buy someone on the street food, she will buy someone on the street clothing, and she will buy someone on the street bus tokens. But she will not, however, fork over cash. She keeps to this rule, and goes about her day. No guilt.

Unlike me, though, Lori will talk to anyone. So, while I admire her rule and the consistent way she applies it, it doesn’t work for me, because I just can’t bring myself to be in some stranger’s space long enough to learn that she needs bus tokens. No.

So, at one point I decided that since I give at church and various other reputable charities, I’m not giving to beggars on the street. If you want help, beggarman/beggarwoman, go to the charity, or I’ll see you at church.

But that strategy didn’t assuage my guilt at not giving, because I wasn’t actually taking the time to talk to Mr. Beggarman/Ms. Beggarwoman (see above) about church or the nearest shelter/food bank/social service agency, so what good was that? 

So then I decided that, okay, if asked, I’d give the money in my coat pocket or perhaps stored in one of the outside pockets of my bag, because I don’t pull my purse out of my bag for anyone. I’m a Philly native born and bred, so I’m comfortable on the city streets, but I see no reason to be reckless. If I’m on the street, my purse stays firmly lodged in the bottom of my handbag, period. I ain’t pulling it from its safe cocoon to give nobody nothing.

After that decision I put some change in my pocket, waiting for someone to ask me for it, but he never did … on that one day I tried this.

So then I said to myself, “You know what? I’m not giving money to beggars, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it. The world is a bad place, people lie, and I’m not taking any chances on someone scamming me out of my money. No, I’m not doing it.” And, despite the guilt, I have more or less followed this philosophy (unless I have change in my coat pocket) until today.

Today on the subway, a young man announced to us all that he needs help. He’s homeless and living on the street, he said. He has nothing, he said. He’s asking for anything. Anything at all. Spare change. Leftover food. Even old clothing. (Sorry, dude; I’m wearing all my old clothing.) If not old clothing, then just a little money so he can buy some lotion or maybe some deodorant. Whatever we could give out of the “love and kindness [of our] heart[s].” He says he’s just “looking for a blessing.”

I caved. Seriously. Who wants to think he has no love and kindness in his heart? Who could resist being a blessing to someone else, when he puts it like that? Not I.

I’m pretty sure I was suckered, because the guy was too smooth and had his dialogue down pat. But it's okay. Every so often you just have to take someone at his word and damn the consequences, right? 

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