The last time Z was out of town I took the boys to the farmers market on the Saturday morning. We were going out again later that day, so I only pulled into the driveway a few feet off of the street. As I was getting ready to unload my guys a man approached me, told me he was hungry, and asked me for $5.
When we lived in the city it drove me crazy that Z handed out money to the first person who asked every day. We weren’t making enough to pay our bills, I made the privileged (and perhaps common sense-often those who asked reeked of booze) assumption that the money didn’t go towards food. I’d rather contribute in a way that would actually help with food or housing. Except that I never actually did. We had a friend who had a no money policy, but he’d offer to walk to a take out place and get the person some food. It was crazy how infrequently someone took him up on the offer. But Z has a big heart and if someone says they are hungry and need money he tends to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Lately I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about the choices I made concerning folks asking for money in my past and dissatisfied with my inaction. Recently I read an article from Esquire magazine that a friend posted on facebook. It was written by a young evangelical Christian who has a ministry for the poor in Philadelphia, if I remember correctly. Part of the piece covered of the story of the Good Samaritan. The author said that when the story was first told there was another layer to what went down that would have been obvious to the contemporaries of the characters in the story. The folks who passed by the dude that needed help were well off and religious. Samaritans were kind of considered lower class at the time, yet it was that guy who gave a helping hand. His telling of the story–the haves don’t help while the have nots do–stuck in my mind.
That was what I thought about when the man told me he was hungry and asked for money. I told him yes. And he asked for $10. I gave him $5, frankly I was pretty pissed that as soon as I said yes the $5 wasn’t enough. Cut to last night at 8:30PM. Z was a half an hour from getting home from his trip to NYC, the boys were in bed, and the doorbell rang. We have glass panels at the sides of our front door and I always look before opening. I didn’t recognized the man, but after some back and forth he explained that I helped him out before. Then I got it. It was the $5 dude. And I’m ashamed to say I got a little scared. I told him I couldn’t help him out.
I continued to get more scared as I sat in the kitchen waiting for Z. This man knew where I lived. I was alone in my house with my two boys. Did I do the wrong thing by giving him money? Was he going to continue to approach me? Did I ask for that by helping out? Was I being a horrible person for being concerned? I don’t know what has happened in his life to lead him to the place he is now. And I do know my own life has been enormously charmed. What is the right answer in this situation?
Today I walked with a friend to get a cup of coffee around the corner from my place. There is a small shopping district about two blocks from our house. We live in a city, one that is much smaller than NYC, but a city just the same. Our neighborhood is a mix of single and multiple family homes on tiny lots built from the teens to the 50s of the last century. A healthy percent of the single family homes are filled with people who are affiliated with the University, the apartments house students, and there are naturally tons of other people who have nothing to do with SU. A few blocks away the area gets very economically depressed very quickly, there is a lot of poverty here in Syracuse. We live in the kind of neighborhood where there are occasional muggings and the break-ins increase as we near the winter holidays. But if you are careful it is easy to feel pretty damn safe.
As we walked home I started telling my friend what happened last night. She asked if the guy looked a certain way and I said he did. She said she saw him at my front door earlier in the week and it seemed odd to her. I don’t know where Z and I were, she said both of our cars were in the driveway, it’s a small house, if the bell rings we hear it. Bottom line, I feel even more unsettled. If something ends up happening with the dude I feel like I brought it upon our family by interacting with him.
As for the right answer, one doesn’t exist as far as I can see, only additional questions. What is the right way to help? Why do I deserve to have a full belly and this man does not? There is not a simple, pithy way to wrap up this story. I feel guilty. Guilty for being frightened of this man who has done nothing wrong to me, guilty for potentially endangering my children, guilty because I have so much and do so little in return.
So….how about some pictures to lighten the mood?