Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sister, can you spare a dime?

NO! Now leave me alone!

That is the short version of this story. Here's the longer one.

I pull into a gas station. As I walk over the the automatic payment machine, I catch a glimpse of a woman standing at the side of the mini-mart. I pick up a lot of information with one glance. She is standing with crutches and a cast on one foot. She looks slightly disheveled with messy hair and the deeply tanned skin that comes from spending a lot of time outdoors (and not because she's been surfing.) The lines are deep and her skin has a roughness to it. My instant conclusion was that she was homeless or had some sort of drug or alcohol problem.

She says, "Ma'am, do you have a dollar?" She is about thirty feet away. I try to ignore her as I put my money in the payment machine. "Ma'am?" I walk to my car which is positioned behind the pump. She can't see me and I can't see her. "Ma'am?" I start to pump and I'm getting really pissed off that she won't stop trying to get my attention. (I was like a little kid who thinks that if she puts a blanket over her head, she has disappeared. She can't see me. Why is she still hassling me?)

I sometimes give handouts to people on the street. It is completely dependent on my mood, how they ask, and whether I have any money. But as a general rule, I try not to do it. It's better to give money to homeless shelters, work programs like the Salvation Army or substance abuse treatment centers. I also think I'm a popular target for it. I must have a nice face or something. There were men pumping gas around me and she wasn't calling out to any of them.

I was pumping my gas and she kept going. "Ma'am?" (Pause) "Excuse me, Ma'am?" At one point, I almost gave in. I was going to walk over there in a huff and hand her a dollar with an annoyed look on my face. Then I thought, "But that is not how you are supposed to give. If you are going to give, you should do it with a generous heart and a spirit of openness. Not because someone has irritated you and you feel bullied into it."

I was not in the mood to deal with people. Sometimes... not always, but sometimes... when I am out in the world, I feel too fragile for even the simplest interaction. I'm usually good at faking my way through things, but sometimes I just don't have the energy. I try to keep my head down, do what I have to do and then get home where I feel safe and no one will bother me. Her continuing stream of "Ma'am? Ma'am?" felt like an intrusion and genuinely unsettled me.

As I filled my tank, I was feeling a lot of distress about this and I truly struggled with it. What was the right thing to do?

And a part of my brain thought, "Hey, if you really want it that bad, lady, you can hobble your sorry ass over here and ask for it. Slacker." (Clearly that is the evil side of my brain.)

I continued to ignore her. Pumped my gas. And left. As I walked around my car to get in, she was still going...."Ma'am? Excuse me, Ma'am!" When I left, I felt like a piece of crap and I was sure the bad karma was going to get me somehow. I probably deserved it.

I drove away and thought about it for a while. And it came to me. I know what I should have done. I should have acknowledged her and told her I'm sorry, but no, I won't give you a dollar. I should have treated her with some basic human decency, even if I didn't give her what she wanted. I should have done that in spite of my irritation and anxiety.

I just couldn't do it today. Maybe next time.

And I know what she should have done. She should have shut the hell up after about the 11th time she said "Ma'am" and didn't get a response. (There's that evil side again.)

Thursday, June 4, 2009