A few days ago I was walking home from the bus stop after a day at the university. It had been a long day, and I was tired. As I rounded a corner, I heard someone yell at me from behind. Turning to look, I saw a man in his forties walking toward me and waving to catch my attention.
Being someone of generally nice temperament, I stopped walking and allowed the man to catch up to me. Yeah, this was probably my first mistake, but I’m a pretty big guy and not easily intimidated. Plus, I had no idea if his intentions were friendly or hostile. For all I knew, maybe something fell out of my bag and he was retrieving it for me. At worst, I thought, maybe he’s going to try to sell me something.
I was wrong. After a brief formality he launched into a sob story about how he had just moved to town from Nebraska with his wife and mother and how they were completely destitute. Can you spare any money for some food and milk, he asked. Any little bit will help, we’re in dire straits.
It’s not everyday that I run into someone begging for money. I live in a major university town, but the total population is under 100k people. Occasionally we have few homeless people show up in our downtown area, but I’ve lived here for five years, and this was the first time someone solicited me for money far away from downtown. I admit that it caught me off guard. I had braced myself for him to start some kind of sales pitch, but not for this. Maybe he really had a destitute family and was merely trying to find them some food. Though he was unshaven, he certainly wasn’t dressed like a total bum.
Now, I’ve never lived in the heart of a big city, so I’m not cold and insensitive to requests for help from others, but I’m not about to open my wallet to any random guy on the street asking for money. As he unfolded his sob story before me, my mind weighed two options:
- Believe his story and try to help.
- Walk away.
I thought that if I went with the first option, there was still no way I would open my wallet in front of him and give him money. The possibility for outright theft would be just too great. Instead, the nearest grocery store was only a block or two away, and I thought that maybe we could walk there and I would buy some food and milk for him and his family.
I had almost settled on this option when I noticed it – his breath reeked of alcohol.* At that instant I no longer believed his sob story. More likely he was just a wandering alcoholic – still worthy of pity, but not of a handout.
Immediately, I launched into a story of my own about how I’d love to help him, but I’m just a poor grad student who struggles to pay the bills each month. I had no need to embellish the truth since my current salary is only a mind-blistering 8k a year… until this September, anyway.
He appealed once or twice more for money, but I firmly resisted and wished him luck. He thanked me anyway and wandered off, no doubt in search of a cash infusion from someone else.
Perhaps I should have bought some groceries for him anyway, but if he really needed the food, the least he could do is sober up before asking for help from strangers.
* Just for the record, I’m not opposed to the thought of alcohol. I grew up in the Deep South, and many people I knew considered alcohol evil, an idea I find ridiculous. I thoroughly enjoy a good ale or a bottle of wine occasionally, but it’s only bad if you let it control you. Some people let Diet Coke control them, which I find just as bad.
I suppose I’m a hypocrite, though. Coffee has a pretty solid grip over my emotions in the morning.