Back in May of 2010 I posted about my dilemma when it comes to being panhandled. Many of you shared your stories of when you do and don’t and the internal struggles you have. I came away from that discussion feeling that saying no was generally the best strategy and to always say no to giving someone a lift somewhere. However, in the twenty months since I posted “Need Or Scam?” I have witnessed several instances of generosity under comparable circumstances, by folks seemingly far less fortunate than I. I say seemingly because we never can really tell who’s the prince and who’s the pauper just on appearance alone. These have happened in Worcester, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge and so on.
Late one night last winter, there was a young man who was a bit in his cups. He claimed he hadn’t eaten all day and wanted a couple of bucks to get a hamburger at the Burger King across the street from the Hess gasoline station in Webster Square in Worcester. He approached Chuck who was pumping gas. Chuck politely declined. Sitting in the car, I watched as the fellow went up to all the other customers. The only one who reached into his pocket and handed him a couple of bucks was a young man, dressed very casually, driving a beater. If I had been ranking customers socio-economically based on their rides, this guy would have been at the bottom.
Another time I was waiting for Chuck to sort out a transaction at the service desk in the Stop and Shop in Lincoln Plaza. It was late. The store was quiet with only one clerk near me ringing up orders. I watched as several customers passed through. I saw a young woman shopping with her pre-teen daughter. They were purchasing basic, no frills items. When the clerk asked if she wanted to donate to a local charity, the woman did not hesitate and said yes immediately. Then a man came through buying value sized bags of rice, cans of Spam and a few other basics. He too readily agreed to donate. None of the three appeared to have the last name of Rockefeller or Trump. But a couple of customers in office attire both declined to contribute - as had we when we were checking out. While not the same as being panhandled I was struck by the difference in responses.
These and several other moments have triggered interesting conversations between Chuck and me on our long rides between home and Rhode Island or home and Brookline. As a result, we ended up shifting our position on panhandlers from no to maybe.
This evening, we were driving back home from a tough visit in Brookline involving a medical appointment for a loved one. We ran a few errands along the way including stopping by the WalMart in Northborough. As we exited our vehicle in the bustling parking lot, a man in his late thirties or early forties approached us. He was holding a cell phone. He said he was driving between Worcester and Framingham and his car was running on fumes. Could we give him two or three bucks just to get a gallon of gas. He expressed embarrassment because of his predicament. He offered to mail the money back to us. (See paragraph one of Need Or Scam?!) Neither one of us fully believed him. Chuck glanced at me. I nodded and Chuck handed the fellow three bucks. The man repeated his offer to mail it back to us. (He had no way of knowing that was the least reassuring part of his story!) We declined and wished him well.
Will we always say yes? Not likely. But as we walked into WalMart we both felt glad that we had once again said yes. This time we understood that we had acted in a gray area, but that we had acted in kindness and with a desire to trust. We also knew the importance of letting go - not just of the three dollars, but of the decision. The money was moving on in the universe. We sent it with our best wishes.