“Hello, sir, I’ve got a daughter back in a motel room, and I need money so we can stay there for a few more days. Can you help me out?
These were the words we were confronted with the other day, as my partner and I were leaving our local market, loading a week’s worth of groceries into the back of our car.
I’ll admit I was already in kind of a foul mood, because the cashier who had just rung us up had been paying a lot more attention to the box boy than to what she was doing at the cash register. In the process, she almost overcharged us by a huge amount ($17.00 for porcini mushrooms, instead of a dollar or two for creminis). If my partner hadn’t been watching, we’d have wound up overpaying by something like 80 or 90 percent. So, I wasn’t pleased.
On top of that, my perception of this woman now standing in front of us was that she looked pretty ragged. Not just in terms of clothing, but her face was puffy, and you pretty much got the impression that things hadn’t gone well in her life. In fact, my first thought was that she’d just gotten off what we used to call a “bender.”
So, already in a lousy mood, here’s how I replied: “I’ll be honest with you. I’m afraid if I give you any money, you’ll just go buy some cheap wine with it.”
“Oh, no sir, no wine!” she replied, laughing, maybe a little bit in an embarrassed kind of way. “No wine!”
And I, continuing on in my crummy mood, added: “Well, I don’t believe you. But I’m willing to give you the benefit of a doubt, just in case.” And I took my wallet out and gave her a dollar.
Now this, or something similar to it, is probably an interchange many of you have had before. Maybe many times. The streets of most American cities are filled with homeless people, some of whom really are just down on their luck, some of whom are there because of mental illness, and many of whom are substance abusers of one kind or another. When I was a kid, we called them winos, because they had a penchant for drinking Boon’s Farm, or some other cheap wine that you could buy for a dollar or two a gallon. No doubt, drugs cost a lot more.
The whole encounter left me with a bad taste in my mouth, though. My partner said to me afterwards: “Well, you’re a little grumpy today!” And, of course, he was right.
I got to thinking about it afterwards and it occurred to me that what I probably should have done was one of two things; either I should’ve simply (and politely) said: “No, sorry I can’t help you,” and left it at that, or I should have just given her the damn dollar, minus the high-handed commentary. After all, what’s a dollar to me? It’s not that we’re rich by any means, but for most of us, let’s face it, a dollar isn’t a lot of money anymore.
So, it wasn’t the money per se that was bothering me. What stuck in my craw was how I’d handled things. And note this. I’m a person who actually believes, at least most of the time, at least when I remember to remember, that the Divine Spark glows in every person you encounter on any given day. No matter how hidden it may be. So, what right did I have to say to this woman, this carrier of that Spark, that I didn’t believe her? And yet, the awful truth was that I actually didn’t believe her.
Later on, not to rub my nose in it, mind you, but just by way of filling in the blanks you might say, my partner told me that he’d noticed a Starbucks coffee cup in the basket the woman was dragging along behind her. So, if she could afford a cafelatemochafrappuccinogrande at Starbucks, or whatever they call them, which costs something like 3 or 4 dollars, then why was she hitting me up for a buck to keep a roof over her daughter’s head? At least, supposedly.
Which brings the big question up that I haven’t really posed yet: was I the total dupe? The answer is – probably. All right, maybe almost definitely. But you also never really know. And there’s the rub. I mean, I’m quite capable of imagining a scenario whereby somebody bought her a frappumocha-whatever out of the kindness or his or her heart, or maybe the woman found a half-filled cup and was finishing it off. Or maybe she’d just bought it on her own.
The issue comes down to that. You don’t know. You can think that you’re capable of reading the situation, of using your intuition in the best way possible, of watching and noting the clues and signs, but for most of us, it’s a guessing game, and who knows how many times we get it right?
I wondered later on what I would have done if she’d said to me, instead, something like: “I’ll be honest with you, I need some money for a drink. And I need a drink real bad.” Would I have given her the dollar? Probably not. I’ve seen too much of booze in my life already, and I know the damage it can do, not just to the drinker, but to those around him or her. So, I couldn’t have brought myself to contribute to more of it. Although I will say I would’ve appreciated the honesty. But no doubt she knew all this. So, in a sense, you might say she felt she was forced into lying, if she had any hope of getting some money.
So, there you have it. Some days are like that. You’re annoyed and get grumpy with a cashier because she can’t, or won’t, concentrate on the job they’re paying her to do, and would rather flirt with the box boy instead, and then you almost get overcharged by a huge amount for half a dozen mushrooms. And a lady in the parking lot hits you up for some money to help keep a roof over her daughter’s head, but you don’t believe her, and maybe you’re right, maybe even most probably you’re right. But what if you’re not? So, you wind up giving her a buck, along with a haughty and overbearing little sermonette-in-a-sentence, and she goes off meekly thanking you.
My partner said to me, as we left the parking lot: “I’m surprised she didn’t tell you to go f… yourself.” And I said: “You’re right. I was forthright with her, so she certainly could have been forthright with me.” But in the end, I didn’t really think I was forthright. I thought I was kind of arrogant and condescending, and a little mean spirited. And maybe all because I was annoyed at a cashier who hadn’t been doing her job, and because I’d forgot to see the Divine in this woman.
I wonder where she is right now. Is she really with her daughter in a motel room somewhere? Or is she downing a bottle of cheap booze, or shooting some drug up, all the while, in part at least, using my money? I still think there’s a Great Spark of the Divine Spirit in her. I only hope that someday she’ll see it. And maybe, too, I’ll remember all this the next time somebody approaches me, and treat that person a little less imperiously, a little more humanely – whether I choose to give her a buck or not – and a lot more as if that could be me, walking around in her shoes. There aren’t any foolproof answers, but I think you never go wrong if you treat people with a little dignity, and as much compassion as you can muster, even on those days when you’re feeling annoyed and out-of-sorts at distracted cashiers and flirting box boys.