I Pardon Your Beg

Earlier this year I was in Texas.  As I filled up the gas tank of my rental car before returning it, a nice lady came up to me – I assumed in order to ask directions.

She looked to be between 60 and 65 years old.  She was clean and tidy, and wearing clothes consistent with being a housewife.  She seemed like a normal, middle class lady.

As I waited for the gas tank to fill, she was almost in tears, telling me that she was $12 short of the money she needed to check into a hotel for the night.  She had just left her husband, and her sister would be picking her up tomorrow.

I have a policy about not giving money to people who approach me.  If I give it to them, I feel like a rube.  But, sometimes when I don’t give it to them, I feel like I’m cold-hearted.

When I worked on the University of Wisconsin campus, I became accustomed to being panhandled on State Street.  I actually had people come up to me when I was eating lunch in restaurants and ask for some of my food, and they did it in a fairly threatening way.

A friend of mine was in the Chicago Amtrak station waiting room.  She heard a teenager talking on his cell phone – ostensibly with his mother.  After hanging up, he asked my friend for a sum of money he needed to get the train home.  I think the amount was $10.  She almost said yes, but didn’t.  Later, she heard him duplicate the supposed phone call near someone else, and made the same request, nearly verbatim.  Better yet, she found herself in that waiting room some months later and, guess what?  Same guy, same scam.

So, what did I do with the request I got from the woman on the run in Texas?  I gave her the money.  If she was playing a role, she did it with great believability.  She didn’t seem like a scam artist, which, I guess, would make her an especially good one.

I don’t know, and I never will know, if her story was on the level or not.  I’d like to think she was somebody in need who I helped start a new life.  But, she could just as easily have been somebody who was saving up to buy some nice crystal meth, and my gift might lead to a short life of misery for her.

It’s probably a good idea to make charitable gifts through organizations who know how to differentiate between people in need and scammers, though even they get taken for fools sometimes.  Food stamp and welfare fraud cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and gives a black eye to the people who truly are in need.

But, from time to time, a situation comes up where logic doesn’t seem to be sufficient in making a decision on whether to give in or not.  Sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut, or your heart, or some internal organ.  You may be doing the right thing, or you may get played for a fool.  If you’re like me, it won’t be the first time.

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