Sunday, July 2, 2017

Thoughts on giving, and on getting taken.

Pixabay | CC0
"Bitch," the man said. I turned and flashed him a smile, because I didn't know what else to do.

This was a few weeks ago, before I left on vacation. I was on my way to a meeting in Old Town Alexandria, and had just enough time to stop and get a sandwich for dinner. I parked on the street near the restaurant and went to pay for parking. Old Town has converted to a centralized metering system; there's a station in each block where you pay for your parking and receive a slip of paper to put on your dashboard. The meter takes only coins and cards; it took me a minute to figure out there was no slot for the dollar bill I had in my hand. I shoved the dollar back in my wallet, used my magic plastic to pay, put the receipt on my dash, and headed for the restaurant.

That's when I passed the guy. He asked me for money -- I can't remember what he said, maybe that he hadn't eaten all day -- and I said in a rush, "I'm sorry, but I don't have any cash to give you!" It wasn't a lie, exactly; just because I had a dollar in my wallet, it didn't mean I had the wherewithal to give it to some guy on the street. But I'm sure he saw that I had that dollar. Hence his comment.

I always come away uneasy from these sorts of interactions. Not this one, necessarily; once he called me a bitch, I was even less inclined to help him, even if I could see his point. But in general. I work in a big city, and in the block between my office and the Metro station are a few regular panhandlers: the guy who plays the trumpet every morning; the woman who frequents the corner by the Metro, child in tow; the guy who sits in the middle of the block in the evening, chanting change change change like a mantra. Then there are the folks who sell Street Sense, the newspaper produced by the homeless. I pass all of them every day, and I feel terrible about it, like I ought to hand in my "progressive" card (if I had one) because I never give any of them any money.

But see, I've been taken. Once, on a Metro platform, I was approached by a woman who claimed to be a lawyer. Her purse had been forgotten/lost/stolen, and could I help her out with cab fare? I opened my wallet to give her a $5 bill, and she insisted I give her the $10 bill in there, too. At that point, I should have told her to call her secretary and have her call the taxi for her -- but it happened so fast that I didn't think of the rejoinder until much later.

And I always wonder what these folks are going to do with the money they collect. Will they use it to get food? Booze? Drugs? The easy answer is to give to charities, and I do. But even then you have to be careful. We've all heard the stories about so-called charities that are in business mainly to line the pockets of the people running them.

The homeless and the down-and-out hear those stories, too, and so maybe they'd rather not ask for charity. Or maybe what the charity is giving isn't what they need. There's a van from a local charity that stops at the park in front of our office building every evening. They hand out sandwiches on white bread to the homeless folks who line up for them. Seagulls follow the van -- they know some of the people who get sandwiches won't want them, or won't be able to eat them, and the gulls will have their own dinner from the scraps. It's not that the poor folks are ungrateful. But what if they can't eat the sandwich for health reasons? It's like if you offered a peanut butter sandwich to a hungry kid with a peanut allergy. Should he give it back and risk being called ungrateful? Or should he eat it and risk suffering anaphylactic shock?

I guess the fact that all of this bothers me is proof that I'm not a jerk -- but that seems too glib. So does, "I gave at the office."

I wish I had a better answer.

These moments of unsettled blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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