It usually starts with the word, “Ma’am.” I hear the voice coming from one of the doorways of downtown Davenport – usually on Third Street. The person is different each time, but the story is the same. He or she needs some form of transportation – a cab home or a bus out of town. He or she is short $3.20, or some small but oddly precise amount of money. He or she is a veteran or about to start a new job. Each time, there’s an ID to show, “to prove I’m not lying,” one man said to me as I stood at the corner of Main and Third, waiting to cross the street.
“I’m really embarrassed to ask,” he said. “Really embarrassed to ask.”
When someone asks me for money on the street, I always pause for a moment and look at them. In that split second, there’s a decision to make – to reach into my pocket and offer help or to choose to believe that they aren’t being honest or are in some other way undeserving of the 35 cents I have in my pocket.
Years ago, while traveling across Ethiopia, I saw beggars lining the streets. They held out a hand, usually without looking up or saying a word, and I noticed that the people walking by gave what they could – pressing coins in the palm of the outstretched hand. It struck me that some of the poorest people in one of the poorest countries on earth still found a way to be generous.
I followed suit. Each morning, I would put any change from the day before in my pocket and I would give out a coin at a time until I was out. There were so many beggars to walk by each day, hundreds of them, and that small routine was one way to mentally cope with the site of so much need.
For a time, I did the same when I returned to the United States, keeping pocket change within easy reach for the inevitable moment when someone would ask.
But, there I was last week, on the corner of Main and Third. I looked at the man’s face while he flashed me his ID and asked for $3.20 for a cab. He was mid-script and couldn’t stop himself to hear my response. So, I had to repeat myself. No.
For some reason, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that man. Is there something better I should have said? Should I have challenged his story, which was obviously a lie? Should I have offered something else? Should I have ignored him?
I recently read a thread on Reddit, responding to the question of the best way to respond to homeless people on the street asking for help. People who had once been homeless responded by saying that food was pretty easy to find, but toiletries and socks are not. Do I walk the streets with baggies of toiletries in my purse as one commenter suggested?
The truth is the older I get, the less compassionate I am. I don’t have toothbrushes in my purse or change in my pocket. On this Opinion page, we’ve acknowledged that panhandlers have rights and asking for money on the sidewalk is another form of protected free speech. But I still I found that man’s made-up story to be an aggressive act and I felt annoyed and angry that he had interrupted my peace. I have lectured him in my mind long after he forgot me.
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Yes, in this, the richest country on earth, giving and asking is complicated.
This past Saturday, I stood in front of the Hy-Vee in Bettendorf and rang the bell for the Salvation Army, one in a long series of volunteers who do so each holiday season. The temperature was dropping fast as a snowstorm approached. I found a rhythm with my arm to keep the bell going and I tried to keep a smile on my face.
A man walked by with his wife and when he saw me, he not only looked away but hung his head – a display of shame and embarrassment that he had nothing to give. I noticed people picking up their pace as they got closer so they could pass quickly. To be honest, when someone couldn’t give, it was awkward for both of us. I know – especially this time of year – people are asked to give just about everywhere they go. And, I really believe that most people are like me, they want to approach the world with compassion and give when they can, if they can. But we each only have so much to give and deciding how, why and when to give is an integral part of anyone’s belief system – a response honed and developed over a lifetime of interactions, good and bad.
Quite a few people did give that day, even as my arm grew tired and my smile faded and the ringing lost its rhythm. In fact, I had to keep poking the bills down in the red bucket because it was so full. I noticed a little flash of pride from the people who were able to give and we shared a brief positive emotion glow in the seconds between their dollar going in the bucket and my, “Thank you. Merry Christmas.”
These are all the things that make giving a challenge. It feels good to give, except when it seems someone is taking advantage. These daily interactions , legitimate and less-so, are rife with internal conflict.
How do you make it through life with a compassionate heart without also being a fool? How do you avoid the cynicism that, while protecting you, also shuts you off from noticing when people are truly in need? There’s a mid-point, which I find increasingly difficult to find.