Two vignettes, both true, that occurred recently.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I was at a restaurant downtown and stepped outside for a cigarette. It wasn’t the best day for St. Pat’s, as it was extremely windy and cold for that time of year, and it landed on a Sunday. There wasn’t a lot of street traffic. I was standing in a doorway to be out of the wind, and a guy on a flip-phone passed by and glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. He walked a few more feet, got off his phone, turned around and I knew he was about to ask me for money. He began by asking me if he knew where he could get something to eat, an odd thing on a Sunday St. Pat’s since there’s any number of missions and churches downtown (to say nothing of a YMCA) and he clearly wasn’t Hungry. He then began his sob story about losing his job and needing to take care of his wife and kids (they weren’t with them and he didn’t wear a wedding ring) and he insisted he wasn’t asking for money even though of course he was asking for money, and when he finally got around to asking for it, it was so he could “get a couple tacos at Taco Bell,” no mention of his family at this point. Rare is the day that I carry cash with me and I never give money to panhanlders, but I happened to have two ones and a five, and not even feeling generous, just to end the lie that was unfolding before me – he continued to insist he felt bad about asking for money even though he was asking for money – I pulled out my wallet, where the $7 was clipped to the back. I gave him the two ones, and he looked expectantly at the five. “Nope,” I said, “that’s mine.” He looked disappointed, said thank you, and went on his way, probably to laugh with his friends how he’d just conned me out of $2. Happily for him, he didn’t try to actually rob me since I had a blackjack on me.
In the city today, it’s 95 and humid – hottest day of the year by far, so far – and at every Insterstate off-ramp there are more beggars than usual, all with their cardboard signs. Like anyone who lives in a city, I’m for the most part immune to this stuff. The last off-ramp I was on today, there was a very ragged, very thin guy who looked about my age and he had his dog with him, the best friend to all hobos and, right or wrong, a prop that will make me pay closer attention to them. The guy in front of me gave him a dollar. Because I work out of a car most of the time, I carry cases of bottled-water and bottled tea, so I thought I’d try something. I grabbed 16-ounce bottle of Lipton sugar-free out of one of the cases and rolled down the window. “You want a bottle of tea?” I asked him, and he said “absolutely.” He took it, thanked me, said “god bless” and had downed half of it by the time he got back to where he was sitting. He even patted his dog. The man looked my age – he could’ve been in his twenties for all I know – but his bear was long and straggled, his clothes were very worn and very dirty, and he was tan, tattooed and thin. If he was playing destitute or shit-outta-luck, he was doing a Method actor’s performance.
Thus, I might have found a small, personal solution to what I refer to as The Empath’s Dilemma.