Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A day late and a quarter short

I am often approached by strangers asking for money. I'm not sure what it is exactly that makes me such an easy mark, but it's happened often enough that I instated an Official Personal Policy with Regards to Strangers Asking for Money. It was recorded several months ago in the (imaginary) family bylaws as follows:
If I can comfortably part with the cash, and if situation is one that I could reasonably see myself (or someone I love) in, then I will do what I would hope a stranger would do for me (or someone I love) in that same situation.
Like, say you're at the gas station, totally on empty, and you realize your wallet's not in your purse because you took it out to pay the Girl Scouts when they delivered the cookies you ordered. So you just need $2.00 worth of gas (or at today's prices, $5.00) to get home. No problem. I can buy that. And I'll happily pump a couple bucks into your tank if you want to pull your car up right here behind mine.

It's not that I believe every reasonable explanation is the truth, or that if I can "just spare 65 cents for bus fare" it won't end up in the cash register at the liquor store. I know I've been duped. But still, I want to live in the kind of world where strangers help strangers when they can. So I have to be willing to do it myself. Whether you call it karma or the golden rule or a categorical imperative, it's how I want to live my life.

But an encounter yesterday almost made me want to ammend this family bylaw (despite all the red tape I'd have to go through). I was in the van with the kids outside a Family Dollar store in Buffalo's West Side. A guy came up to the driver's side window and asked for three dollars for bus fare. I knew I didn't have any bills in my wallet, so I checked the ashtray for coins. As I was turned sorting through the change, he asked impatiently, "Are you going to give me three dollars?"

"I'm going to see what I have," I answered, sifting through the pile of mostly pennies. Moments later I handed him a stack of six quarters. "This should get you started." I said. He counted it, craned his neck through the van window to check the ashtray and said, "Can I have that quarter there too?" Though I was irked by his nerviness, I handed him the additional quarter; I can spare $1.75 as easily as $1.50, really. He took the seventh quarter and walked away without another word.

Half an hour later, as I was digging through the ash tray again--this time to feed a parking meter outside Coach's work--I thought about that last quarter and started to get annoyed. It really would have come in handy right then. And I remembered how the day before, I'd decided to cave to my weeklong craving for Chinese food and get the lunchtime special at the local hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. $3.59 for an entree with ham-fried rice! I planned to get sweet & sour chicken, but when I saw it cost more -- $3.95! -- I opted for sesame chicken instead. At the time I laughed at myself for the choice. "It's only 36 cents. You can get what you want," I told myself. But I like sesame chicken too, and its in my nature to save money wherever I can. Even if it's just 36 cents at a time.

And as I thought about it more, I got even more irritated. The "save wherever you can" mentality is what allows us to survive (quite comfortably) on our single modest salary. We have everything we need and lots of what we want and I'm definitely not complaining. I feel like we've really been blessed financially throughout our marriage to always be able to make ends meet, and I'm very grateful. But we're barely outside the cutoffs for public assistance; I think about every dollar I spend before I spend it. And though I can easily part with a quarter (or seven) here and there, I find myself wondering why I bother pinching pennies if I'm just going to toss them out the window to anyone who asks.

This of course leads to a dizzying whirlpool (cesspool?) of other questions about the responsibilities of the individual vs. the collective, the practical and moral bounds of charity, the consequences of poverty, and the requirements and limitations on any system that attempts to define or promote the public good. I'm not smart enough to answer these questions, which is why I tried to keep it simple in the first place: if you can spare it, share it.

In retrospect, what I should have done was not stop at $1.50 just to make things quick, but keep digging through the ashtray until I'd come up with $3.00 in a combination of nickles, dimes and pennies. Especially pennies. I certainly had plenty to spare.

Would that cancel out my good karma? I think I'm willing to risk it.

So strangers, take note. If you come up to me and ask for money, I will give it to you. But I may ask you a few questions first. Like, "What bus are you waiting for?" and "Did you order Samoas or Carmel deLites?" I'll still hand over the money, even if I don't like your answer. And I'll resist the urge to sarcastically scream "You're welcome!" at your back as you walk away. But I won't resist the urge to give you what you ask for in the form of seven quarters, two nickles, and one-hundred and fifteen pennies.


Betzy & Brandon said...

You've really taught me a lesson. Sometimes I feel the same way, I save here and pinch there to only find myself needing it somewhere down the line. But as I tell my husband, what you give with one hand, you receive threefold with the other. So, that being said I just want to commend you for being one of the few good people out there in the westside of Buffalo. There aren't many of us so I guess that's why we get all these strangers asking us for money when we're out minding our own business. My question is, where are these people we've given our change to when we need some change ourselves? Hmmm! Just keep up the good work. I'll close with this thought that always comes to my mind when someone comes to me to ask for money. I ask myself could this be the Savior disguised as a stranger to test my charity. "When you saw me hungered, unclothed, [a couple of quarters short for the bus] did you help me?" Ok so the Savior might not be asking for change but I never know so I hand it over and leave it to their conscience and to the Lord.

Ree said...

You are more generous than I would be, especially with someone so nervy and impatient. I've noticed that whenever I give to a charity through the mail, the solicitations in the mailbox quickly multiply exponentially. I assume my name goes to more mailing lists whenever I donate. So apparently, you must have gotten on some kind of face to face "will give" list. I just wonder how that operates.

Peanut said...

I think Ree's right, you are on a "will give" list. Maybe they read your aura or something. A number of times I've been at an intersection where there's someone with a sign asking of all passing cars. I've never had cash, but I always seem to have an apple or two or other random food that I'll share. In fact, this spring when I was in Iowa City walking on the sidewalk, I was approached and asked for money for food. I think I had a dollar, but then I offered him an apple, a baggie of sour patch kids and other snacks I had in my purse for the flight. He accepted all of the random food I pulled from my purse.

Anthony and Kristie said...

ummm, I realize this might be a bad time for you. However, I was wondering if I could maybe borrow a quarter?

Princess Gerty said...

Trick says, "I'd send you 25 cents but it would cost me 39 cents to send it, so I'll just keep it." I say, you are a great example of selflessness. Sometimes I will give to others like that, but often I won't. In trying to be honest and safe, I just say, "I don't feel comfortable giving you any money right now." Perhaps I should get a little more comfortable and generous...

Mrs. Donut said...

I'm still shaking my head about that, "Can I have that other quarter?" thing. Dang!!!

Stephanie said...

Have I told you lately that I just love you? You are such a wonderful example of the Golden Rule! I on the other hand...simply never have cash. And not too much change either. So I honestly tell people I don't have anything on me. But I tell my kids the same thing. So it doesn't matter if you're a stranger or family.

Nat said...

Love it! Remember the guy at McDonalds who wanted me to buy him lunch at the restaurant across the street? I bought him food at McDonalds and he couldn't go in with me because he was kicked out. He asked me for a soda and I got him water because that's what I can afford when I go out to eat.