Weekend Question Thread: Getting Taken

I usually try to stay out of the way of these, but we talk about this here all the time, about the assumption that you are the one earning your bread and everybody else is getting away with something, about the fear that roils under so many of our political discussions: I can’t get free health care, because that means you get it, too, and you smoke unfiltered cigarettes and drink Jack Daniels at breakfast and eat sausage fried in real beef fat, and it’s not fair. So when Heatherfirst posed this question I wasn’t surprised at the vehemence and diversity of the responses. I agree with her:

It was Christmas 1990, and he and I went shopping at a local mall to find gifts for the family. It was bitterly cold outside made worse by a cutting wet breeze, winters in Memphis are like that, and as we pulled out of the parking lot at the mall we passed a man standing on the median of the road selling single stem roses for $2. He was wearily disheveled, not dressed at all for the weather, and looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. He could have been starving, but he also could have been a drug addict. I’ll never know.

We’d always been taught that you ignore these people, they’ll take your money and use it to buy booze, or they’re somehow scamming you. Better to keep your money and do something more productive with it. Except Ranger pulled right up to the man, handed him a twenty dollar bill and said, “I’d like a rose for my sister,” and he pointed toward the passenger seat. “I haven’t seen her in months.”

The man looked down at the bill as if he were holding a fragile newborn animal, and his hands started to shake.

“Aw man,” he said. “I ain’t got no change for this. You got something smaller?”

“No,” said Ranger, and then as he shifted the car into drive he continued, “Please keep it.”

The window was still down as the car pulled away, and I’ll never forget how he called after us, “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW, MAN! YOU’LL NEVER KNOW!”

As we pulled up to a stop light in silence Ranger finally spoke up. “I saw him when we first drove into the parking lot hours ago. No telling how long he’s been out there, and he doesn’t have change for a twenty? LET HIM HAVE MY TWENTY.”

I asked Ranger if he cared what that man did with the extra money and he said he hadn’t even thought about that. It was just evident that the man selling roses needed those extra eighteen dollars more than he did. It felt like the right thing to do.

Her comment section on the original post was a huge morass of “where do you stop, then, invite all the homeless into your house, let them kill you in your sleep and rape your children?” and “can’t save everybody” and “if I can’t heal the whole world then I ain’t doing SHIT” interspersed with frustrated people saying, “Oh, for fuck’s SAKE already,” which is about the range of response anybody gets for raising this question. And I get it, I do. I get being overwhelmed by the state of the world’s misery and unable to move for fear that your own two hands are NEVER enough to bail out the boat, and I get the conversation about fish vs. teaching to fish, and all of that.

And I would at this point turn it over to the theologists and whatnot, except to say: You do the job in front of you. What you consider “the job” and “in front” and “of you” are the ways you work out how your obit is going to be written, and it’s that simple. I can make up a catchphrase (Live Without A Helmet!) and sell it as a system and go on Oprah, but this shit is pretty basic: You have what you decided to do and that decision is called your life.

Heather’s original question was this:

Indulge me for a second and consider this scenario: let’s say you’re given the opportunity to donate some money to a desperate family who would use it to feed their children, but were only able to do so if you donated the same amount of money to someone you knew would use it to buy crack. Would you do it?

Well? Would you?


25 thoughts on “Weekend Question Thread: Getting Taken

  1. This sounds a lot like Jon Carroll’sUntied Way Christmas tradition:

    Here’s how it works. This is the age of ATMs, so the ATM is the centerpiece of the Untied Way. Go to your ATM and take out some money. How much money is entirely your business, but the sum should be sufficient for you to notice its absence. It shouldn’t hurt, but maybe it should pinch a little.
    Take your money to an area of town where there are people who seek funds from passing strangers. […] Then you take your fistful of $20 bills and stroll down the avenue. When someone asks you for money, you give him $20. You repeat this until you are out of $20 bills…
    Sometimes people ask: Won’t the Untied Way clients use their money foolishly? Won’t they buy drugs or cheap booze or unsavory companionship? And the answer is: Yes, they might. Have you ever spent your money foolishly? Have you ever behaved unwisely? Untied Way clients are human beings like you.
    Sometimes people ask: Are the Untied Way clients worthy of these donations? What does “worthy” mean? How much suffering would you want them to have? How much virtue do you feel is appropriate? It’s like this: You can spend your time determining the eligibility of clients, asking them to fill out questionnaires and describe what other kinds of financial assistance they are receiving, or you can give them money and move on. The second way is more efficient.
    It is the assumption of the Untied Way that people on the streets who ask for money need the money. It is not an occupation that people aspire to. The people on the streets are not middle managers seeking to supplement their incomes. They need money, and you have money. Maybe they are reduced to asking for money because they made foolish choices, but again: There but for the grace of God go you.

    It seems that it’s that last sentence that people just can’t get into their brains…
    I’ve gotten to a place where my measure of the decency of a society is, seriously, what is life like for stupid, weak people? Ones with no family to bail them out? How low do you let anyone sink? Not that everyone – or ANYone – panhandling is stupid or weak. But so what if they were? Really. And no, of course, we can’t and don’t fix every problem we see on our own. But thinking that we really ever do much of anything “on our own” is an illusion. “On our own” == Somalia. No thanks.

  2. Yes. And I say to my children, whenever we are out and about and see someone in need and I give them what I can, I say “there but for the grace of God…” and I also tell them — “your good deed is not measured by the recipient’s use of it, but by your giving.”

  3. I know I’ve told this story somehwere, don’t remember if it’s here, so if I’m repeating myself, forgive me.
    I used to work with this woman in NYC. She was uber-religious, not in a “I’m getting to heaven before you” kind of way but in a very applied, very activist, devout Catholic kind of way. She worked her faith every minute. She walked the walk and talked the talk.
    We worked at 112 and Broadway. Cindy (the woman) always put money in any cup or stopped when asked for money, and gave them what she could. So, yeah, that question came up. Don’t you think that guy is just going to buy crack?
    Her answer was (I paraphrase): You and I can see how miserable he may be in six months, or even that he’ll be dead in six months. All he can see is his own misery in this minute, and he asked me for help in this minute. That’s his life, this minute. I can choose to show him God’s kindness and mercy in that minute, or I can show him more of the world’ cruelty and derision. Seems pretty clear to me.

  4. Yes. I instilled it into my daughter.
    One day in 2000 we were at the Indianapolis auto show and a homeless man was there digging in the garbage for a cup of still warmish coffee (it was midwinter). My 9 year old daughter walked up to him and handed him her $5 monthly allowance and smiled at him. He broke into tears as did my husband and I. We went into that show feeling very different than we would have if we hadn’t seen him.
    It sticks with us all to this day.

  5. Yes.
    I walk around with gift cards to eatery’s as well…for the times that I want to be sure the person has an incentive to eat. I have two homeless shelters as neighbors and so I get hit up a LOT. sometimes I decline…but I always connect with the person, I look into their eyes and ‘see’ them and say something like “not today”…I hated the invisibility more than the decline when I had to ask for money.
    virgotex, Cindy sounds amazing. St Francis always begged, and made his followers beg. It was part of their pastoral mission, the inconvenience of making people give, encouraging charity, and reminding us that we all need each other.
    I wish that I thought my April 15th ‘donation’ was going to the needy…but I’m convinced it goes to the banks and countries that we owe money to and the defense industry…

  6. I’m much more inclined to give to folks who are obviously in need, but don’t have some elaborate story worked out in advance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been turned off of giving by the song and dance that the fellow seemed he had to give me to earn it.
    As a young man, I once gave a guy several dollars because his story was “can you spare some change? I’m trying to put together enough for a beer…” That sort of honesty and forthrightness won me over.
    I wish I could be freer of the cheapness and the ill assumptions that plague me, like so many of you are…

  7. Yes, I would give. The crack addict is going to obtain their crack, somehow, and getting $20 by begging for it is better than whoring for it, dealing themselves, or stealing stuff. It’s not best case, but I don’t have the ability to get them to best case.
    What I dislike is being scammed. I’d rather people just say they’re in a bad way, or having hard times.

  8. As a young, naive, college student from a low population midwestern state, I found myself in DC visiting a friend who worked in Sen. Conrad’s office. It was the first time I had encountered pan handlers. We simply didn’t have them in my winter-lasts-practically-all-year home. I was sight seeing on my own, my friend being at work, when one of them approached me, asking for money.
    Instead of giving him the dollar he asked for, I offered him $5 to help me find the Smithsonian, which I was looking for but couldn’t figure out – not realizing that “The Smithsonian” isn’t just one building. He could have laughed at how naive I was. Instead, he stood a little taller, directed me to where I needed to go, asked if he could do anything else for me, and thanked me for the money.
    Did he buy drugs with it? Maybe. Does it matter? Not really. In that moment, as I treated him as a human being with respect and worth and something to offer, we connected and I like to believe both walked away a little bit better.
    Then I worry – was that condescending, or elitist, or just plain shitty, to make the guy “earn” the $5 by giving me directions? Should I have just handed him a dollar and wandered lost a little bit?
    I haven’t thought about that story in years, so thanks for this, A, cuz I think I needed to think about that story.

  9. Escariot –I wish that I thought my April 15th ‘donation’ was going to the needy…but I’m convinced it goes to the banks and countries that we owe money to and the defense industry…
    I think at least some of the taxes do go to the needy, and the rest goes to the crackheads in the Dept of Defense. It’s the same bargain as A asked about.
    That said, I do give more when I have it and it can help.
    also, tatere, that Untied Way comment is brilliant.

  10. Well, yeah. I mean, if I had $40. Otherwise I’d give each one $10.
    Here’s the deal: the person who YOU know is gonna go buy crack?
    Might be not gonna go buy crack right now with the money you just handed out.
    Or maybe that person’s gonna get enough to share.
    The person who needs groceries for a family? Help ’em get somewhere that money can buy good food.
    Don’t leave ’em standing there with noplace to go but Wal-Mart.

  11. “your good deed is not measured by the recipient’s use of it, but by your giving.”
    Excellent comment by your friend.
    In SF I deal with this all the time.
    When I was flush (in the Clinton era) I remember a guy sitting by an ATM with a sign that said. “I need 33 dollars for a room.” I went to the ATM took out 40 and gave it to him. I said go get the room. I remember the incredulous look in his eyes. It was a nice feeling. But I also remember that it wasn’t about the gratitude. But I know that for some people they really EXPECT the gratitude and that is part of it for them. To get with no expectation of reward is more Christ like.
    And I wonder how many Christians remember that.

  12. if i had money. i’d donate. i still donate, they gives me address labels. and calendars.
    i don’t go all out to make big profit on ebay.
    greed is bad. they really might need that crack.

  13. I remember one time I was arguing with an arch-Republican about the latest famine/crisis in Central Africa (this was a number of years ago) and he said something like:
    “Aw, the corrupt government of [whichever country] is just going to steal half of the aid supplies anyway.”
    So I asked him:
    “Is that an argument to not give anything, or is that an argument to give twice as much?”

  14. I don’t give enough money to charity, judging by the size of my paycheck. I don’t give often to people on corners lately. If I am giving, I don’t think for a moment that the matching crackhead requirement should matter in a situation of need for someone else, that seems like an easy choice. But yeah, the question of charitable giving matters to me. I often say to myself ” If I ever need help, I hope others are more giving than I am, because I wouldn’t want to rely on me.” It’s a struggle.
    Even though life has shown me with great evidence and force that I will likely never do without, I am slow to be financially charitable. I give to political causes rather freely, yet get worked up over charitable donations of the same size.
    I have an idea that I see sometimes as sound, more often as very twisted. My professional life has revolved around taking care of people, helping people. Sometimes the help is for individuals scooped up by police and fire departments and shuffled off to the ER because nobody wants to take care of a dirty, smelly person with a (drug/alcohol/bipolar/schizo/shit-their-pants/fill-in-the-blank) problem. Like most nurses, I see and do things rational people choose not to imagine. The twisted idea part is that I sometimes think that this “lets me off the hook” somewhat when it comes to being charitable elsewhere. The sound part is that I can actually say I spend much more of my life than most people actually doing something that revolves around helping others, and it is okay to feel good about it… the fact that I get paid for it isn’t really a part of the picture I’m painting. The fact that much of a day is spent in a helping profession is tested constantly by the spirit in which I choose to give that help. And I choose to believe that as long as I give help in the best possible spirit of service, to go past the point of offering “easy” help, then I’ve given something much more valuable than money. But don’t be fooled, I am only human, and the “spirit” I mention lives on a long sliding scale of selfish to selfless, and it shifts with unbelievable speed sometimes.
    And yeah, I know that because I was charitable yesterday, or an hour ago, doesn’t mean I don’t have to be charitable right now. In this moment. With whatever I have in my pocket, if someone else needs it more. I think that if the Flying Spaghetti Monster were to sum me up right now, FSM would tell me ” I need to invent a new model of supercomputer to figure out the infinitesimally small fraction of your potential that you have used helping others and giving to others.” I’d say to FSM, ” You’ve got me pegged…”

  15. Racymind. Thank your for your very thoughtful post.
    In SF they did stories sometimes about “compassion fatigue”.
    I totally understand the reasons behind financial giving. When I spent a year doing social justice work there had a bumper stick they gave people who weren’t doing the hands on work but were supporting the people who were.
    “Some go by giving. Others give by going.”
    I went. Now I go by giving when I have money. When I don’t I try to give. Time and attention mean something. I get tired of this world where everything, every act is about the money.
    Sometimes the act can’t be valued easily.

  16. Grace, compassion, and charity should never be constrained by what we ‘think’ would be done with them. I give someone a dollar, he gets a dollar. He then has the responsibility to do something positive with the dollar, not I. If I give a man a job, it is his responsibility to work according to the rules that job entails. If not, the job goes away.
    Personal responsibility is part of being a contributing member of society. In order for someone to step up and join his (or her) fellow villagers in the community, they must show some personal responsibility. Folks who, for whatever reason, find themselves on the fringes of our community need our help. This help must be freely given, with few constraints, so that people can choose how they will use it.
    But, some may say, how will they know to do the right thing with the charity? How would they use it to build themselves up(and by diffusion the rest of the community)? Others may balk and say that they would only use the charity for the worst of things, things that tear down or society. The answer lies with hope.
    Barack Obama was a community organizer. He went into some of the worst neighborhoods of Chicago and showed desperate, lost people how to take personal responsibility and bring themselves out of despair. He needed the charity of others to do this, charity that came with few restraints.
    Restraints on charity are placed by people who expect the worst and as such give the community leaders little to work with, holding them back from succeeding with as many people as possible.
    Of course there must always be some conditions with our compassion, dropping 10,000 $100 bills from a helicopter over a poor neighborhood would be a bad thing. But using the million dollars as loans to rebuild retail and housing in that neighborhood, providing food and clothing to those who need it would show the best of our compassion and grace and allow the residents of that neighborhood to get the tools they need to take responsibility for their lives and the health of their community.

  17. 1. When my husband and I were in Seattle many years ago, there were signs everywhere – in restaurants, stores, on the street – requesting tourists not to give to panhandlers. The signs stated that there were resources available in Seattle for those in need. It made sense to us, so we didn’t give. The people who asked us for money were incredibly rude, in your face rude, and I was surprised and not exactly inclined to cough up the dough after some of these encounters. It was only afterwards that I asked myself why there were so many people on the street (sleeping on steps, etc.) in Seattle if the resources were adequate? I never figured it out.
    2. I was on Michigan Avenue in Chicago about two years ago and there were lots of people looking for money, up and down the street. All were polite, and no one approached me beyond saying something. I gave some money to a guy with a dog, after I had sat with him for a few minutes petting his dog and chatting with him. I have a feeling that dog made him a powerhouse moneymaker.
    My question is not “do you give” but how do you give in these cases, where there are so many in one area?
    And Virgo, I have copied, pasted and printed out that paraphrased quote. I will be sharing it.

  18. I have lots of panhandler stories: ones who may have stolen my wallet, ones who got in my face, ones who threatened my husband, ones who tried to touch me, ones who protected animals from the cold, ones who were kind to others, ones who asked politely. I’ve lived in a lot of places with a lot of poverty, and there’s never an easy answer.
    In a lot of ways the question itself is easy: you help the hungry family, and hope for the crack addict. But you can’t refuse someone food.
    But taking it into the outside world is harder, for lots of reasons. I think it ultimately comes down to what Athenae wrote in the post : You do the job in front of you. There’s a different job in front of all of us, and we’ve got to identify it, and do it. We see the world through different eyes, and trying to do the most good we can in the best ways we can will be different for all of us.

  19. You do the job in front of you. There’s a different job in front of all of us, and we’ve got to identify it, and do it. We see the world through different eyes, and trying to do the most good we can in the best ways we can will be different for all of us.
    Thanks. VERY well said.

  20. Yes, of course.
    I am answerable to myself for my behavior, no one elses.

  21. No, because I don’t believe in charity or volunteerism (a way, at least in this burg, for rich people to get a lot of for-free from poor people while skimming perqs off the top). On the other hand, I’d take that money and find a way tohire someone in the family and pay them a living wage so that they could support their family. Nobody likes to take “welfare” or “charity,” and would rather be dignified and have a job.
    Also, that way, I’d also cut out the crack addict; my ex-fiance used to be a drug addict: I’m absolutely done enabling people’s addictions.

  22. Would I do it? Yes, absolutely. Do I want the government take away that choice for me. No.

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