The Cost of $4

Earlier this week, I may or may not have been the victim of some kind of scam. Not credit card fraud or the online swine flu scam that MSN keeps trying to get me scared of, but maybe more along the lines of “secretly middle-class person poses as homeless to garner free money from unsuspecting people.”
So I’m waiting at That Big Coffee Shop Whose Profits Just Fell 77%, holding $4 in my hand that I’d just dug out of my wallet. I was kind of excited that I had this surprise money and wouldn’t have to pay with my card.
And all of a sudden, “Question for you.” A woman has just emerged from the corner, wearing sweatpants and some kind of head covering, looking distressed.  “I had to leave my house this morning because I was being abused,” she says, and then tells me she can’t get into a women’s shelter and needs money. She says they’re full, that there are other places she can go, but those places require some kind of $25 deposit (are you catching the scam here? I wasn’t).  She wants to know if I have any spare change I can give her, and she’s clearly almost crying as she says this – not to mention, her right eye is black and blue and screaming abuse.
I’m standing there with four dollars in my hand, out in the open, so I tell her, “I have a couple dollars…” There’s no real way around this, because I can’t say I have no money (it’s RIGHT THERE), and I certainly can’t say I really need it, because no one needs coffee from That Big Coffee Shop Whose Profits Just Fell 77% (although I’m sure That Big Coffee Shop Whose Profits Just Fell 77% appreciates my $4).  I give it all to her, I order my skinny iced vanilla latte and I put it on my debit card.
She walks out, leaving me $4 poorer and one cup of coffee richer.  At this point, I’m still thinking she’s legit, but I’ve started to get an inkling of “Wait, since when do women’s shelters charge people?” but then I think, maybe she needs bus fare. Maybe she can’t get to these places and for, whatever reason, doesn’t want to ask for bus fare or food money or whatever the need may be.
There is a middle-aged woman next to me waiting for her coffee, and she turns to me and says, “What did she ask you?” I explain that she said she’d had to leave an abusive situation and needed some money, and the woman says, “Well, she’s giving it to that guy. Guess he’s the one beating her up.”
I look out the window, and I see her talking with a man sitting at a table. He doesn’t appear sketchy, but she’s definitely talking to him, and although I don’t see money changing hands, the woman next to me swears she did.
“I only gave her a few dollars anyway,” I say, “so it’s not a big deal. But wow, some people. I guess you never know these days.”  I’m kind of offended by this, because even though it was only a few dollars, I’m not big on scam artists, and I am also not big on really obvious scam artists who conduct their scams in full view of the people they’re trying to scam.
We chat about it for a few more seconds, and then she says, “Well, maybe he was giving her money. I guess I couldn’t really tell.”
By the time I get outside to sit down and drink my coffee in the sun, the man is gone, and the maybe-maybe-not-abused woman is being led out by a barista, who is explaining that it’s not acceptable to panhandle on company property. The maybe-maybe-not-abused girl is not letting up, and even though I’m (sort of) trying not to eavesdrop, I keep hearing the barista say, “I know it sucks. I know. But I’ll get in trouble, that’s the thing. I can’t allow you to do this here because it’s against the rules.”
Coffee-shop woman comes out and starts talking to a man seated near me, who she may or may not know, I have no idea. She tells him what’s going on, and he gets up, walks over to the barista and the maybe-maybe-not-abused girl and informs her, “The women’s shelter won’t charge you.” She says, “Oh,” like she’s almost surprised, and that’s the end of everything, as far as I can tell. The girl leaves, I eventually do the same, and the rest is up in the air.
But here’s the thing. I don’t know her life. It’s hard for me to imagine that someone would bruise their face on purpose in order to appear abused and beg for money in a coffee shop.  It may have been makeup, although it didn’t appear so, and maybe the crying act was the work of amazing acting, but I don’t know. I don’t think she turned around and gave the money to the man, and I have a hard time believing that someone would fight that hard against leaving when asked. But I don’t know.
It’s a little painful to think that, right when I’ve realized I want to be a good person, that I want to help others, and that I want to do whatever small things I can to make the world a little less awful, someone would take advantage of that. And maybe this girl did.  But I also realized something. I would much, much rather be the kind of person who gets taken advantage of a few times, than the kind of person who doesn’t even try.  I’d rather lose a few dollars to someone who clearly needs it, even if for unsavory reasons (even if it was going to drugs, who am I to judge someone struggling with addiction?), than know that I am capable of just brushing someone off when they are crying for help.
On Valentine’s Day this year, I was downtown and passed a homeless man holding a sign asking for money.  “Be my Valentine,” it said, with little pictures of hearts. And of course there was something about “anything helps,” or “homeless and hungry.” For some reason, it was the most heartbreaking (lord, excuse the pun, please) thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to give him something, even a quarter, but I didn’t.  I still remember that guy, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who wants to give and doesn’t.
I want to be the kind of person who believes that people are good, who believes that people are worth it, that they are worth believing and helping. The world is against me in that, because so many people aren’t worth believing, but I would rather choose to think they are than to stay in my sort-of-middle-class bubble. I would rather trust people and believe they are in need when they say they are, and I would rather naively lose four dollars than turn my head and watch a maybe-maybe-not-abused girl wander off, doubting the goodness of the world – which, trust me, I myself have spent far too much time doing.

4 thoughts on “The Cost of $4

  1. i think i was also involved in a scam like that! i was at the gas station and some guy pulled up in a panic and said “my dad is really sick and i’m trying to make it home to murfreesboro [which is an approx 30 min drive] but i have no money and i’m almost out of gas.” he kept apologizing and looked distressed so i gave him $10. he went into the gas station to “pay” but when he came out, i swear to god, i think he was pretending to pump gas. and the guy working was looking out the window and giving him a weird look. and he def didn’t “pump” long enough for $10 worth. i was annoyed but basically came to the conclusion you did. he obviously needed it more than i did. and i would have felt bad if i hadn’t given him any money.

  2. I SWEAR I taught you if a panhandler makes and maintains eye contact with you, they are lying. I’ve been through an exhaustive amount of training for this and have the professional credentials to back it up… so you should believe me.

    There is a myth that people don’t make eye contact when they are lying. The fact is: they make MORE eye contact with you because they want to watch you to make sure you believe their lie.

    I recently wrote an award winning feature about UW business students that went to Panama. (okay, maybe not award winning, but I was a finalist)

    One of the thing that struck me was an account from one of the students who witnessed raw sewage rotting in a street in front of some houses. They were in a remote village, and some well-meaning non-profit group came in, saw the villages lived with no running water or sewage. So the non-profit volunteers dug around, installed a sewer, distributed their equivalent of a “mission accomplished” t-shirt, and took pictures to put on their facebook profiles so they can show the world how they saved a village and improved their quality of life.

    But they didn’t.

    If you can get past my biting sarcasm, you see that these people were well-intentioned, but naive when it comes to ACTUALLY implementing a sustainable change. They installed a sewage system but never taught the local people how to maintain it. So the sewage actually DECREASED their quality of life by overflowing and contaminating the street they live on. I saw the same thing in Iraq (I literally fell in a puddle of crap during a raid at night).

    The business students came into Panama and observed 7 families who collectively worked on a farm. The families were being undercut by a major coffee company and had no way of escaping the cycle of poverty. They knew they needed to increase the value of their coffee, but did not know how to do it. They had no conceptual understanding of “per unit cost”, or the profit generated per bean. Their unit of measurement wasn’t kilograms, it was “buckets”. Coffee beans go through 4 major steps of refinement and can be sold only at the first, second, and fourth stages. The price point at the fourth stage generates the highest per unit cost, but the villagers had no way of getting past the first stage of the process.

    The business students developed a plan to get the families through the first three steps, but made the families think of a realistic way to get themselves from the third to fourth step. And they did. In only 8 days, a couple of UW undergraduates helped these families increase their profits by 386%. That’s not a typo. Almost 400 percent. For the first time in their lives, these Panamanians have a realistic chance to break the cycle of poverty. A one-time hand out is nice, but would not have done anything to change their situation.

    In a smaller scale, I see a bit of overlap between their story and yours. There are people who need help, and as privileged individuals, we want to look back on our lives and know that we did everything we could to make a difference. But good-intentions only carry you so far, and I think that some of our well-meaning actions can actually make a situation worse.

    So on the other side of the coin, I think there is a degree of comfort in knowing we choose our battles. It doesn’t bother me to walk past people on the Ave who ask for money. I see them almost every day. I know my thirty-four cents isn’t going to pull them out of poverty, and I know they won’t use my generosity as a means to help themselves break the cycle.

    I never have any regrets about it. Sure, it helps that I’ve learned to read body language. But even if you can’t read the difference between honest desperation and insincerity, there is a degree of comfort in genuinely understanding that sometimes the best thing you can do to honestly help, is say no.

  3. You know my stance on giving money to people is that whoever asks, receives. When people find out about this, they usually comment about how they could never bring themselves to behave that way. “I want to know where the money is going,” is the usual response. The thought I keep having is, “When did people start having to earn our love and compassion?”

  4. Krys, I just came across your blog today while surfing 🙂 I loved your post. And I was just thinking about how I feel about being scammed when you ended saying you rather be cheated a few times than not give when you really want to! I appreciate that.

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