On a blustery autumn day last week I was walking across a bank parking lot toward my pickup when a voice called, “Hey Man, can you spare a few bucks?” Some version of this has happened to most of us, and often more than a few times.
Keys in my hand and only a few yards to go before climbing inside the warm cab, I paused. The stranger stood on the sidewalk a convenient twenty feet away and made a kind of helpless gesture with both his hands. I said, “So, you need money?”
“Yeah. I’m a little short.”
His clothes were reasonably clean but his jacket was a tattered shirt and not much protection against the wind, but no shivering or outward signs of fighting the cold. I walked closer, and not without considering I had just cashed a fairly large check and stuffed the cash in my pocket. Glancing along the empty sidewalk, I realized we were alone. There is then always a moment of expected danger. Is this a setup? Does he have a weapon? And as I approached I realized he was tall and broad and not decrepit or frail like one might expect from someone who hadn’t been eating regular. He stood his ground and waited for me to approach and I felt more halfhearted and shaky than he appeared to be.
In a quiet voice I asked, “If I did give you a few bucks what would you do with it?” Now only a few of us would think he was going to buy food. We know better. Most likely the nearest liquor store and a cheap bottle of whiskey.
“I want to go to sleep. I’m tired.”
“Salvation Army doesn’t cost anything,” I told him.
“I want to sleep alone.”
I was about to turn away then. After all, I put my money in the kettle every Christmas. Wasn’t that enough?
“I know this motel,” he said. “They don’t charge much and I can get a private room.”
I stepped closer. “A few bucks, huh?”
“Well,” he grinned. “Ten would be better.”
So I was sold. He had a sense of humor. I peeled off a ten dollar bill. He took it, nodded and went his way.
Then, buyer’s remorse. There was a liquor store just up the street. For sure no motel in the city would give him a room for ten dollars, or even twice that. If he got ten bucks from every sucker like me that he met, he had more money than I did. My truck wasn’t even paid for so I went back to it, climbed inside and said, “Jim! You idiot.”
But then I remembered one of my first Sundays in the Dominican Republic. My wife and I were invited to attend church. The lady who invited us was the mother of one of my students at Carol Morgan School. We were new there and had no church yet, so we accepted.
The church was old, like so much of Santo Domingo architecture in the colonial city. An imposing structure that dominated the site and an attractive park across the way. My student’s mother had parked her car so we could walk through this green park to the church. I remember feeling a bit enchanted by the scene, so ancient and picturesque, walking toward and ancient church in a foreign land beneath what I took to be large native mahoganies.
A man approached and the moment was spoiled. He stepped in front of us and addressed me in Spanish, which at that point was alien to me. I stammered. Mrs. Threan, who had seemed to me like a blonde soccer mom turned to the man and smiled, then in perfect Spanish asked how she could be of service. He presented her with a creased and dirty medical prescription and as we learned later, asked for money to fill it. His little, he said, was on death’s doorstep and the only that would save her was this medicine that he could not afford. So, he asked for help.
Now the irony of this encounter struck me so I was forced to turn my face away. Here this lady is taking us to church and approached by somebody who is clearly running a scam on her. My expectation was that she was scold him sternly in his own language and send him away. The old, much folded prescription recognized for what it was – a prop. As he waited he removed his battered yellow hard hat in a respectful gesture which I found well acted after many rehearsals.
I suppose the manly thing to have done was for me to shoo the guy away with some good old American English and save Mrs. Threan the embarrassment.
But before I could speak she said, holding the much traveled prescription, “I am so sorry for your little girl. Of course I will help you immediately. Take this prescription to my pharmacy, which is just near here. I will write you a note, they will fill it and put it on my account.”
The guy did a pretty good job of acting but failed in the end to look even mildly sincere. He stammered that he didn’t want to do that. He wanted cash. He was convinced the pharmacy was closed on Sunday, but she assured him it was open. She found a scrap of paper and a pen in her purse and began writing. He stomped away.
I did not know this woman but her wisdom and compassion I never forgot. At no time did she speak down to the man, accuse him of his obvious swindle, or in her manner display disrespect.
So, on that windy autumn day in the bank parking lot I knew what I should’ve done. The same thing she did. I might easily have told him to go to one of several motels I knew near the bank, and while he was on the way I would simply pull out my cell phone, my American Express and he would have had a room for the night or he would’ve walked away and my ten bucks would still be in my pocket.
Our suspicions of panhandlers are often justified, but we shouldn’t forget that regardless of what they beg for, they have been reduced to begging. That in itself is enough to deserve our sympathy. We should do what Jesus said – if somebody asks you for something, give it to them.
Now, as I often do, I will recommend a book, An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski. If you sometimes think that life in a big city like New York is so infested with crime, drugs, and hopelessness that nothing good ever happens there, you need to read this true story. Too often such stories as this are buried somewhere, but this one became a bestseller.
Take some time to allow a little soft light of truth to illuminate your heart. Life ain’t so bad if we don’t accept the power of despair. Read about it. You won’t find it in the news.