July 24, 2018

With panhandlers, it’s a roll of the dice

     He walks with a limp.
     Rain or shine, he hobbles back and forth on the sidewalk next to a busy intersection.  I’ve watched him for two years, holding his cardboard sign.  As hard as he works to beg, I have wondered why he doesn’t use that energy to find a job.  He might have issues that would keep him from getting hired.  I don’t know, but I’ve never seen anyone give him money.
     Sometimes the appeal for help is more direct.  I’ve been approached at gas pumps.  Seemingly desperate people plead, “I need to get home to my dying mother.” 
     Who knows whether they are telling the truth?
     More than once, I’ve said, “I am not giving you money, but bring your car to this pump … and I’ll give you some gas to get home.”
     Am I being conned? 
     Maybe I am, but maybe I’m not.
     On Tuesday mornings—if I am in town—I have breakfast with some buddies.  Most of them are retired, and we have no agenda. 
     When I got out of my truck last month, I stopped to chat with a friend.  As we were walking into the restaurant, a man flagged us down.  He stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Maurice.  I’m from Tampa, and I’m hungry.”
     “Maurice,” I said, “Come inside.  I’ll buy you breakfast.”
     On the way to the door, he said that he had slept under a nearby bridge for the last three nights.  I quizzed why he hadn’t gone to the homeless shelter.  He said it was full, and he was turned away.
     Our usual waitress greeted us.  “Tammie,” I said, “please bring this man breakfast.”  And with that, I walked to our usual corner.
     Before my meal arrived, I got up to check on Maurice.  He was over by the window waiting, too. I laid $20 on the booth’s tabletop.  “Maurice,” I said, “this will cover your meal and then some.  Leave something for Tammie, too.”  Maurice nodded, and I returned to my table.
     The group’s conversation had switched from baseball to a convoluted court case which had just concluded.  During the judge’s recap, I glanced up to see Maurice leaving the restaurant with a to-go bag.  I waved, but he didn’t look my way. 
     “Oh, well,” I thought: “he’s in a hurry.”
     And he was.
     After breakfast, I was almost to my truck when I heard a shout: “Tammie needs to see you.”
     Back inside, Tammie was at the cash register.  “Uh,” she said, “the fella left without paying. “
     Maurice had pocketed the $20, and he left a $16.47 tab.
     Helping panhandlers is a roll of the dice.  That’s why I rarely give money.  
     Some are con artists, winos, or drug addicts.
     Some are genuinely desperate.
     How do you know which is which?
     You don’t. 
     In a split second, you have to decide: Yes or no?
     Sometimes you get a Maurice.
     I might have been scammed, but he didn’t go away hungry or broke.
     A month later, my buddies are still laughing.
     Well, that’s worth something.