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Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

Hayden Hollingsworth
Hayden Hollingsworth

Decades ago, ago that was the opening gambit for the panhandler; inflation has upped the ante, but not altered the range of response. What does one do when stopped or even accosted in the street with such an encounter? Avoiding eye contact and walking on by is the time-honored method of ignoring the request. Having never been on the receiving end of begging, it is hard for most of us to imagine the range of emotion that must go through the mind when you have your hand out.

We know all too well what goes through our minds. If it’s night, a lonely street, or someone tapping on the car window then fear leaps to the front . . . and with good reason. Most of the time, the situation seems more innocuous and we can still keep right on walking, texting while oblivious to the situation. Such a rebuff, which is my usual response, rarely leads to persistence but I suspect there may be an under-the-breath comment not fit for print.

An alternative approach opens all sorts of possibilities. If the requestor is shabby and dirty, then homeless is the word that pops into the mind and stopping to chat moves one further down the list of options. But if the person is more or less respectable looking and has an affable greeting, we are disarmed and may become engaged.

Recently, in a pleasant neighborhood, I had just such an encounter. He approached me with a hail fellow well met demeanor. He shouted, “Good morning! You’re looking fine today. Been a long time since I’ve seen you.”

Clever fellow. He probably recognized that I have enough memory loss that I would not risk the chance of saying, “I have no clue who you are.” He was right about that, so I would have said something non-committal but he launched off into a manic series of comments about the weather, the state of the nation, how worthless Congress is, and after a few minutes of listening to that he, without catching a breath, said, “This is really embarrassing but I need $17.27 for a full tank of gas. I just ran out and I left my credit card at home. I need to go visit my mom in the nursing home.”

His eyes were jet black and he was making eye contact, but I couldn’t check out the pupil size, a surefire giveaway for drug use, particularly with his over-the-top behavior. I was impressed with the preciseness of his request: I like to guess how many gallons it will take to fill my tank, and I can get within a couple of tenths, but never thought about down-to-the-penny calculations. He could not recall the name of the nursing home where his mother lived but, after a few suggestions, eventually came up with a local dementia center.

What to do? This had scam written all over it but he was so clean-cut and pleasant, I gave him the money. I got a, “God bless you, brother,” and a hug as off he trotted, no doubt thinking he should have asked for more. I got in my car and told my waiting companion; judgment had jumped in. “That money will be up his nose before we get our lunch.” I asked him what he did in situations like that and he didn’t reply but probably thought I was nuts to have given him money.

Later that day I asked a close friend how he handled those encounters. He said, without a pause, “I give them the money. I have more than I need and they are desperate. I don’t make judgments about it.”

That brought to mind a story told to me by a minister of a large downtown Atlanta church. As he was coming out of his office, he was confronted by a homeless drunk who asked for money. “I won’t lie to you. I’m going to buy whiskey,” he said. The minister said, “Come with me,” and took him to the liquor store, buying him a fifth of Wild Turkey. “Go somewhere you will be safe while you drink this and remember that I care about what happens to you.’

Six months later, the minister came out of his office and was greeted by a gentleman in a Brooks Brothers suit, white shirt, tie, and wingtip shoes stopped him. “You won’t remember me, but six months ago I was on a two month binge of drinking and you bought me a fifth of Wild Turkey. That was the last drink I had. My family took me back, my law firm let me stay, and I joined AA. That all happened because of what you said to me.”

So who knows what might happen when you give someone money? Are you an enabler or a helper? You could be either, but it never hurts, regardless of the situation, to tell them you care what happens to them. I hope I remember that the next time someone asks, “Say, Brother, can you spare me $17.27?”

– Hayden Hollingsworth

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