Saturday, June 7, 2008

Did I Pay It Forward?

What do you do when you pass someone on the street who is asking for money? Do you avoid making eye contact and move by as quickly as possible? Do you look them in the eye and firmly tell them "no"? Or do you reach into your wallet and give them something?

Living in the suburbs, you aren't faced with this situation too often. I grew up just a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh, yet I didn't get into the city very often. That's probably a good thing for me, because in the past the few times I've been in this situation I was always the type to avert my gaze and move by as quickly as possible. And it made me feel uncomfortable.

I still live in the suburbs, but in the past few months I've had this situation come up a couple of times. For some reason, my response has changed quite a bit. Now, my immediate instinct is to see what cash I have and give it to the person. A few months ago I held up traffic at a light because I was trying to get the attention of the homeless man on the corner holding up his cardboard sign so that I could give him $5. I'm not sure I believe in karma, but I'm willing to invest $5 in it just in case. (I do really like the TV show My Name is Earl, so perhaps that has influenced me.)

A few days ago while walking into a drugstore, a young man stopped me in the parking lot, pleading for some money. He said that he had no money for gas to return home (quite a drive from where we were) and had a 16 month old baby in the car. He promised to send back double whatever I gave him via Western Union as soon as he could. What would you do?

As I had approached the store, I watched him pleading with 2 other people that were on their way in. From a distance I couldn't tell what was happening, but both people shook their heads no and kept walking. Then it was my turn. I listened to his story, and had to decide what to do. I knew I had some cash in my wallet (which is rare--usually just plastic in there) but the smallest bill I had was a $20.

I saw his car a few feet away, with the hazard lights flashing. I asked him to show me his baby. We walked over to the car, and in the back seat in her car seat was a small baby. There was also a woman. She looked a bit haggard, but I didn't really look very closely. The young man was searching for a pen and paper so that I could write down my name and address, again promising that he would send me back double anything I gave to him.

So I ended up opening my wallet, pulling out a 20, and giving it to him. I walked away before he could even ask again for my information. He was incredibly grateful ("Oh my God, thank you. Thank you so much. God bless you. Thank you.").

I wish I could say that doing it made me feel good. For some reason, it didn't. All I can think about is the downside of giving them the money. Instead of picturing them driving around the corner to fill up their gas tank, and maybe buying a snack for the baby, all I can think is that they also could have turned in the other direction and used the money to buy drugs. I really want to picture them happy and relieved and driving themselves home safely, but instead I just have visions of the poor baby sitting in the back seat wailing while the two of them sit in the front seats smoking crack.

If we were at a gas station instead of a drugstore, I would have offered to pay for their gas rather than just hand them cash. Or if they were asking for money to buy medicine I would have just bought the medicine. Then I'd be able to feel good about it, sure that I had actually helped someone. Unfortunately, now I just feel like an enabler rather than a good Samaritan. I suppose I need to listen to some Lennon today, and remember that I'm a super star.


Corrina said...

If I have the money to give (I don't always have cash on me, of course) I will give it.

Jeff said...

That is a tough call. I had a guy ask me for money for the very same thing recently but when I offered to go get him a gallon of gas (to start his car) and then meet him at the gas station (to buy him some gas) he refused. So who knows if it's a scam. Either way, I applaud you for having faith in humanity and trying to help.

Susan said...

Corrina, Jeff, good for you both. I have finally just let it go, and decided that they definitely used the money for good, not evil. We all shine on....