Alms, Alms for the Poor

23 September 2013

Last night, and the day before, the subject of giving money to street people came up.  Jo was the first to chide; she feels I shouldn’t give money as street people are an unsavory lot.  “Besides,” she said, “we could use the ten bucks.”  I suppose so.

Then last night I turned on PBS and watched a replay of a Fred Friendly seminar.  Fred Friendly was an estimable journalist who passed away in 1998.  During his career, he put on a series of TV seminars in which some swell from Harvard hosted a panel of judges, lawyers, clergy, doctors and journalists.  These worthies would thrash out some ethical problem vexing the public and their answers were usually pretty good.  I’ve tried to never miss one.  I found these seminars interesting and illuminating.  Last night, I tuned in late, right close to the end.  This seminar dealt with poverty and paupers, the reasons for their poverty, and concluded with some tart observations on what should be done.

One  panelist was an MD and though I didn’t catch his name, I’d seen him before.  He wore a fuzzy wool suit like an Englishman’s and sported a bow tie (that bow tie should tell you something).  The thrust of his argument was poor people are poor because of their sloth.  Poverty is not only completely their fault, it is their vice.  “Give them nothing,” he sniffed.  “Should one approach you on the street, pass by without a word.”

Hearing this, I finally told Jo why I stop for street people and shell out a few dollars.

Back in the `80s. I was a high-powered telecommunications consultant.  My clients were big outfits and the work paid handsomely.  Thanks to my nice income, I dressed well and accessorized with a vengeance.  Hand-made suites and shirts, silk ties, gold rings (modest ones, however) a Montblanc fountain pen and a pigskin attaché case.  One afternoon I was walking back to the parking lot when a young couple stopped me.  “Sir,” said the young man, “My wife and I really, really need to get home [I can’t remember where he said it was] and we need  a couple of bus tickets.  We really do.  Could you help us out?  Please?”  He was clearly harried, anxious and distracted, his voice had a plaintive edge.  The young wife seemed near tears.   I think he was too.

Well, good old self-made man that I was, I turned him down flat.  But he asked again and I turned him down a second time.  With that, he let out a little bleat, turned to his wife and off they trotted.  Satisfied I hadn’t contributed to anyone’s dependence, I resumed my pace.  About a half block later, I stopped to think.  Clearly, the two young people were strung out so something unkosher was going on.  Judging by their demeanor, this bus trip was necessary to . . .  To something.

What would happen if they didn’t make it?  If they got on the bus, something good could — would — come of it but if they didn’t, well . . .  This trip could be, and probably was, a fork in the road for these two.  By not being able to get on the bus, they could be heading into a bad place from which they may never completely emerge.  By not buying a couple of measly  bus tickets, I’d have sent them there.

I turned around but they were gone.  I trotted back to the corner but there was no sight of them.  I checked some doorways and lobbies, but it was no good.  Damn it!  I hope it all worked out.

This episode has bothered me ever since, for I had the opportunity to do a boon, but kicked it aside.   Ever since, when I have a few extra bucks and see some poor soul on the corner holding his little cardboard sign, I pull over and hand him (or her) what I’ve got.  And if one of them ever asked for a bus ticket, I’d buy it.

Each one of us will, from time-to-time, come across some poor devil who’s going down for the third time and is desperately reaching out for help.  We have two choices: We can slap away his hand and go about our business or we can reach down, pull him out of the muck, brush him off and send him on his way.