I didn’t know this guy, the one who approached me as I sat in my van outside the post office. ...
“Hey, excuse me … .” I didn’t totally catch the rest.
The guy who had approached my van addressed me using a term that sounded Spanish to my Anglo ears. Something similar to “buddy” or “pal” perhaps, but in the friendly way those words used to be said. Today, the person who addresses you as “pal” does so dismissively, especially if you’ve met before but he can’t be bothered to remember your name.
I didn’t know this guy, the one who approached me as I sat in my van outside the post office.
There was a trivia contest on the radio as I pulled into the parking lot. I was playing along so I was waiting until it was over before going inside to get the stamps. The guy was standing in front of the post office. I didn’t notice he had walked over until he was right at the window because I was wracking my brain for an answer. I remember it was “Georgia,” but now I’ve forgotten the question.
He politely asked for money. I lied, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me.” I didn’t dismiss him by calling him pal or buddy, and definitely not chief.
The “sorry, no cash” line is my typical response when someone on the street asks for a handout, or if my kids ask for money for the concession stand. Usually it’s the truth, but even when I’m flush I prefer the little white lie to an abrupt no. And I’m not the type to say, “Get a job, hippie.”
I also didn’t want the guy, who appeared well groomed under his ball cap, to feel that society was indifferent to his plight. Society was just tapped out at the moment. Otherwise, it would have slipped him a couple of bucks. The lie also lets me come away looking like a decent guy.
Here’s where the story takes a turn.
The trivia show was over, the guy was back in front of the post office, and I passed him by on my way inside. It felt awkward, as if I had jilted him, but he had gotten over the rejection and started commenting on the weather. He was almost gleeful when talking about the unseasonably warm temperatures and the weekend forecast of more to come. It was if the weather was a bit of good luck shining down upon him, and he wanted to share it with me and anyone else who might pass by.
Once inside, when I pulled out my debit card, I knew that lone $5 bill wasn’t long for my wallet.
I handed him the money on my way out. He thanked me and was kind enough not to call me on the earlier lie. He also asked my name. I have little doubt that he’ll remember it should we cross paths again.
A similar thing happened over the winter, on one of those rare days when we saw snow. Sitting at a McDonald’s drive through, a different guy approached. He apologized for the interruption, then asked if I had a couple of bucks for coffee and a biscuit. For some strange reason I didn’t lie, and just handed the guy a few singles. It was a good call on my part.
After he walked in front of my van, I noticed that the guy knocked the snow off of his boots before entering the restaurant. Once inside, he wiped them dry on the carpet.
So here’s this guy, obviously having a pretty tough go of it, but he wasn’t about to make some McDonald’s employee’s life tougher by tracking dirty snow onto the clean floor. Poverty probably makes it easy to forget your manners, but this guy hadn’t.
I can’t promise that I won’t lie to a panhandler again, but I will take a closer look at the person doing the asking before I do. These two guys proved it can be a worthwhile investment.
Dan Naumovich is a freelance writer and business copywriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.