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I have no hard-and-fast rule about giving money to pan handlers. Most of the time it’s a no, but catch me in the right mood and I might open my wallet. I remember one guy years ago who caught me as I was on my way to work and asked if I would like to donate to the United Negro Pizza Fund. Making me laugh at five in the morning? That’s worth five bucks.
One time I sat down with a guy who had funny signs every day. I talked with him for a few minutes and asked if I could pay him to be in a picture that would appear on my blog. I don’t really consider that one a donation, more like paying a royalty for his image.
And there was this one guy who used to hang out in the McDonald’s Drive-Thru. Every time I saw him I would buy him food. One freezing day, seeing that he had no gloves, I gave him my mittens. I figured he’d look silly in them, but that that was better than frostbite. Of course, when I drove back through the drive-thru a few minutes later because they’d forgotten my fries, his hands were bare again. I guess he knew he’d get more sympathy if he looked more pathetic. A few months later, off of his meds, he tried to attack someone in a car at that same McDonald’s, and I haven’t seen him since.
Sometimes I see someone who is obviously at rock bottom, and I think that maybe the liquor he’ll buy with my money will help him forget his situation for a while, even if it won’t help him out of it.
In general, though, it’s a no. My heart breaks, while my head reminds me that by giving someone on the street a few dollars I’m just promoting a system that obviously isn’t working. That my money would be better spent given to a group that would help shelter and feed homeless people and get them back on their feet.
Last night I was trying to fit in a few too many errands on my way to pick up my daughter from school. It was dark, and rainy, and really cold. I picked up the few remaining things I needed from the grocery store to complete tomorrow’s indulgent Thanksgiving dinner and went outside. As I was struggling with my umbrella I saw a wet man holding a hand-written note, trying to keep it dry as he showed it to another shopper. I hurried on to my next stop, glad that he hadn’t targeted me. I was in a hurry.
I stopped into my favorite little neighborhood gourmet store and chatted with the girl behind the counter as she rang up my $39/lb cheese. We both turned as the door opened and the same man came in, holding his note. He walked up to us and she looked at him suspiciously. No matter how much you try not to judge somebody by looks, it was clear that this guy wasn’t going to be buying anything in this store.
He grunted a few times and pointed at his ear, indicating that he was deaf, and he showed me his note. It covered the whole page, but I just skipped to the end where the note asked if I would give him a dollar.
I smiled a sad smile to try to show him that I was sorry, but shook my head no. He mouthed a thank you, and left.
The clerk and I went back to our business, without talking about what had just happened, and I paid for my little treats and went on to my last stop, a health food store.
I needed just one thing: a bottle of flax seed oil. And as I was paying, guess who walked in?
We made eye contact and he gave me a polite little nod, as if to say “It’s OK, we’ve done this dance before, I’m looking for other partners.” He showed his note to the other customers as I left and started walking fast, feeling like an asshole.
Expensive cheese. Good cream to make my own butter. Delicious bread. Expensive oil that I wasn’t even going to eat, but use to season pans. Ingredients for a humungous meal that could probably feed twenty but would instead stuff five people. A warm house. A healthy family. An easy life.
I turned around and walked back to the last store. He wasn’t there. But then I spotted him coming out of another store. I pulled out my wallet and handed him a ten. The look in his eyes was a mix of surprise and gratitude.
And I walked away still feeling like an asshole. Because that $10 wasn’t going to go far, and I really hadn’t done anything that could be considered a sacrifice by any stretch of the imagination.
I know so many people who do so much more. I could do more. I should do more. But doing something small is better than nothing, I guess. I can be a little nicer to people who aren’t living their lives the way I live mine. I can give them the benefit of the doubt that no, they couldn’t help themselves even if they really tried, that the deck is stacked against them in ways that can’t be overcome, and that if I decide to give them a few bucks, they get to spend it how they want.
‘Tis the season to not be so dismissive.