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.