I rarely get panhandled. I live in a town where you don’t see much poverty, or many lost, homeless souls. Wages are low but so is unemployment. Those who suffer do it privately, in rooming houses on the edge of town, in run-down trailers, in tenant farmer shacks — too proud to ask for help, or perhaps not so proud but denied it anyway, certainly too proud or too beaten to beg on the streets.
I mention this because it may explain why, when I am asked for money, I almost always give something, regardless of my mood. I get a chance to be compassionate, without it costing much. If I lived in a city where misfortune grinned at me from every corner, and outstretched hands blocked my way like toll booths, I don’t know how much compassion I could afford. I imagine that a walk through Calcutta, or even New York or Detroit, would convince most of us that we could barely afford to look at human suffering, let alone relieve it.
Of course, we’re more sympathetic to some kinds of suffering than to others. Your heart may go out to someone who is mentally ill, unable to fend for himself but denied institutional care, who ends up living in a cardboard box under a railroad trestle, freezing to death on a Winter night. That is, if he doesn’t decide to get warm by breaking into your home or your car . . . or turns out not to be retarded, or crippled, not one of the deserving poor, but rather someone tormented by some private agony, and unable to put it in perspective, or ignore it, unable to get up on time, or get to work on time — so he drifts from job to job and from town to town and from our compassion to our disregard. Our hearts are like thermostats: if there’s a little too much whiskey smell on the other guy’s breath, if his beard stubble is too dark, our hearts shut off.
It’s questionable, I know, whether giving money to a drunk to buy more wine relieves his suffering. I wondered about this when a middle-aged man walked up to me the other night at the Fast Fare, where I’d stopped for gas. I listened politely, but impatiently, to his woeful tale that had been honed into a short but serviceable fiction. He was “a bricklayer,” he said. “Can’t you tell?” he asked, pointing to his dusty boots. Yes, “a working man,” he emphasized. And he and his wife, he said, gesturing vaguely to the woman sitting on the low brick wall near the dumpster, needed “a couple of dollars for gas,” to get back to Durham. Could I help him?
This was like listening to Reagan ask for humanitarian aid for the contras, insisting the money wouldn’t be used for guns. There was no car nearby but mine; the woman seemed to be in a stupor; the man’s gestures were exaggerated and his act unconvincing and sad.
Pumping gas with one hand, I reached with the other into my pocket for money, while he kept talking. “The boots,” he said, with great conviction. “You can tell I’m a working man,” he said, “by the boots.” He looked at them again, inviting me, with his eyes, to look, too. We both looked. They were work boots, all right, made of tan leather, with reinforced eyelets and a sturdy toe, the kind of boots carpenters and painters and plumbers pull on groggily each morning, when the stars are still out and there’s frost on the windshield, boots they don’t bother to lace until they shuffle into the kitchen to turn on the kettle, or maybe not until they get to Hardee’s, for a biscuit and coffee-to-go, boots that are practical and heavy and get heavier as the day wears on, like the heavy leather tool belt around their waist, or the heavy metal tool box, or the heavy cans of paint, as dust flies through the air, and settles on their face and in their hair and on their boots — yes, these boots meant to evoke for me hard and honest labor, muscles pulling against each other, blueprints, engines, bricks, pride in work. The pride of a working man, not the shame of a drunk.
Perhaps, I thought, instead of giving him the money, I should just talk with him, about alcoholism, or gaze soulfully into his eyes, to let him know I really cared. But that wasn’t what he was asking for, was it? Perhaps I should ignore what he seemed to be asking for, and consider, instead, what would serve him best. But since I’m wrong so much of the time about what’s best for me, or my wife, or my children, how could I be sure I knew what’s best for him?
I could have suggested we borrow a can, and buy some gas, and put it in his car. A friend of mine says that when drunks ask him for money, for food, he invites them to a restaurant for a meal, but they always turn him down. I didn’t mention the car. I didn’t want to watch him fidget uncomfortably, like a child caught in a preposterous lie, and I didn’t want to listen to the more elaborate lie which would likely follow. Throughout history, we’ve been ingenious in devising tortures to get other people to tell the truth, but it can be torture just to be asked. The lies we tell others become part of us, like our memories or our dreams. They’re the warm breath we blow on our freezing fingers. In some hearts, it’s always Winter. Who am I to insist it’s really warmer than that?
“Hey,” he said, “don’t worry, I’ll pay you back.” I nodded curtly; I was done pumping gas, I was tired of being lied to, and I wanted to go home. Without giving him any advice, or a drawn-out brotherly look, I pulled a dollar out of my pocket and held it out to him, saying I hoped it would help. I expected him to thank me, pocket the money, and walk away. He took the money, but just stood there, shaking his head.
“I said a couple of dollars, man. I said I’d pay you back. Didn’t you hear what I said?”
I was stunned. His anger caught me like a rising wind, slamming shut a door opened briefly to a stranger, scattering my mood like leaves. Having shown him some kindness, I was being accused of greed. Dark clouds were between us now; we were suddenly litigants, each demanding justice — like two suspicious nations, like warring lovers, like two men about to have it out on the street.
“Are you kidding?” I said.
He looked at me, and shrugged his shoulders, his face impassive.
“I gave you money,” I continued, with no attempt to keep the rancor out of my voice, “and what are you giving me — a hard time?”
He shrugged again, but this time with eyes downcast. The fire was out of them. He seemed lost, not in thought, not in feeling, but somewhere I couldn’t follow, where my anger had driven him. He looked at me from behind a mask.
“Yeah,” he said unemotionally. “You’re right. Thanks.”
This time I shrugged.
“You’re welcome,” I mumbled.
He walked toward the woman sitting on the wall, and I got into my car. I was still angry, but the weather had changed: resentment was giving way to melancholy; I could feel it like rain.
In my mind, as if I were tracing the lines in a cup that had cracked, I went over everything we’d said. Neither of us, I thought, had gotten what we’d wanted — he, the couple of dollars he’d asked for; I, the satisfaction of knowing that I’d helped.
I turned the key and the engine started. As I pulled out of the lot, I caught one last glimpse of his back.
He had tried to hustle me and, as I’d seemed to be a soft touch, had tried again. But wasn’t it also true that, more subtly, I’d tried to hustle him? I’d wanted to be generous, to walk away feeling good about myself, but is that what true generosity is?
I’d split the difference between giving him nothing — and thus risk feeling guilty — and giving what he’d asked for, and risk feeling like a fool. Who was I helping, then, with that dollar?
Was it compassion, I wondered, that made me go along with his story? I hadn’t openly scoffed, but neither had I forgiven him the transparency of his scam. Again, I’d split the difference, because his pain seemed too great to acknowledge. But was it? Was there anything in his heart I haven’t encountered already a thousand times in myself? My addictions may be different; there’s more polish in my act. But don’t I have my hand out, too — if not for money, then for approval, or sympathy, or sex?
As I drove home, down darkened, winding country roads, my anger echoed ever more dimly, like the roll of a distant thunderclap. I was weary now, drenched and sad. And I asked myself why I kept creating strangers by forgetting who we really are — all of us — behind our masks.