Saturday, April 16, 2011


They are multiplying as you read this. They appear everywhere: opening doors for you, holding signs in the middle of traffic or just sitting on the sidewalk with an inverted hat in their laps. They are  not asking, they are begging for money.

They are not all the same. Some smell of booze. Others are sober but a little too slick, i.e. two men conversing in front of a convenience store. As you approach, one of of them, abruptly, breaks off the conversation and smartly opens the door for you. As you pass, he whispers "change when you come out, sir?"

A couple confront you in apparent great distress. The woman looks to be in substantial pain. The man explains that she is suffering from a pancreatic infection, she lives in  Rhode Island and the last train leaves in 45 minutes, the've barely got cab fare to the station but desperately need help with the train ticket.
In instances such as these, it is not exceedingly difficult to detect an absence of legitimacy.

But, there are other, different individuals, alleging specific circumstances, who have obviously abandoned any vestige of self-pride and have accepted the alleged stigma of shame.

A woman stands on the island separating north from south traffic. Her face, shorn of any makeup, is gaunt and reflects the essence of agony, desperation and despair. She bites her lower lip--hard--in a last ditch, but unreliable attempt to maintain what little remains of her composure. When a red light causes the traffic to temporarily come to a stop, she boldly holds up a crude, self-made sign: "mother of children; about to lose home; must feed them." She steps into the line of cars and moves amongst them, the sign held high, pleading with the drivers' faces, making the maximum use of her limited time before red turns to green.
Reason and decency tell you that she has lost all hope but is doing what she must, to lunge at survival.

As diverse as these individuals are, so too are the reactions of those who observe them.
Get a damn job---I've got my own problems---These people are mentally challenged and should be institutionalized, etc,, etc., etc.
Is there some kind of formula one can use to unerringly weed out the shams from the legits? 
The only thing that comes to my mind is our own moral compass, that intangible, but oh so important, body part which no cat scan or m.r.i. can capture: our conscience. Its percentage of accuracy is higher than you might think. 

At the risk of sounding immodest, a charge to which I have long ago pled guilty, I believe that my life's experiences have endowed me with a reasonably reliable ability to size people up at first sight. I recall the many times, as an attorney, when I sat in the well, awaiting the entrance of a Judge before whom I had never appeared. As he took the bench, I closely looked at his face and evaluated him. The issue to be resolved: nice guy or sonafabitch? I was not often wrong. I believe that what you are inside will, sooner or later, manifest itself on the outside.
And, so, I, personally, use this as my standard.
I give to these people, pocket change or a buck, when my heart and soul tell me that they are truly needy. I've sometimes passed them by, thought better of it, walked back and gave them something.

Will the recipient rush to the nearest bar? Will it make any significant difference in his life?
I don't know. Up real close, that's not the criterion for giving. 

I've gone with my gut. I did what I thought was the right thing to do.
That's why you'll always feel good about yourself. A little skip joins your walk.
Hey, maybe you'll hit the lottery. 
I said maybe.

1 comment:

  1. Very well stated, your students are fortunate to have your experience and wisdom!