Although many of my friends may disagree, I consider myself to be a very generous person by nature. If I had the resources available, I would find great satisfaction in giving away much of my wealth in order to better the lives of needy people. However, I don't presently have the capability of throwing away money, and I have begun to value purchasing power as a very important and cherished tool. Furthermore, having been cheated before by random strangers accosting me for generous donations, I have naturally become quite skeptical when dealing with what seem to be beggars. Therefore, I rarely part with my hard earned money when presented with an unsolicited opened hand, and I generally give charity only to confirmed legitimate organizations.
Yesterday, however, I found myself digging my hands into my pockets for a complete stranger in what has become very uncharacteristic of my nature. I was walking down a busy street in Brooklyn minding my own business when an alarmed person approached me and started on a rant. Although I always remain alert in these situations, I am never shy of helping people or at least listening to what they have to say. It seems that I haven't yet developed that New Yorker talent of completely ignoring unrequested company. I stopped to listen to what this person had to say. He was speaking very fast, and his method of panhandling seemed almost professional. "Can you please spare a quarter for me?" he asked. "I am stuck here and I need to make a phone call to someone who will be able to give me a ride." The words came out of his mouth really fast, and the sound of his voice was alarming enough that my first inclination was to put my hands in my pockets and supply him with his request. The guy sounded like he was really desperate. As I put my hand in my pocket to find some spare change, the panhandler started to test my limits. I guess I was dressed presentably with a nice cap, and he must have felt that I would give more than a quarter. He didn't stop talking. "Maybe you can give me $2.50 for the subway or maybe you have $10.00 for a car service, I just need to get home soon." At this point I was well aware that I was dealing with a professional. I thought for a few seconds, and then I promptly brought forth a quarter and wished him good luck. I figured that although this person was obviously lying, he had done such a nice job telling me this story, and I felt he earned his money with his astute behavior.
Stories such as this one cause me to think about the concept of charity. People approach me all the time asking for unearned gifts of money. I wonder what these people contribute in order to deserve this money any more than I do. I am looking for a job, and I earn money doing part-time work. These people simply open their hands and expect me to fork over some hard earned cash. Additionally, how do I know that these people really need the money? What if these guys go out and buy cigarettes and alcohol with the extra dollars that they manage to convince me to give away? Maybe these people are living lives of luxury while I live a life of sustenance. It doesn’t seem fair for one person to sweat for his bread and another person to be handed free food.
More thought on the subject, however, leads me to different conclusions. Although these people don't seem to be contributing to mankind, they are working for their money as well. At the place where I pray every morning there are always dozens of collectors seeking that daily quarter. One morning, a rather young collector was approached and asked why he didn't find a job. A young person should have ambitions, and there is no excuse for a perfectly capable individual to panhandle. The young man explained that he does indeed work many hours a day to support his family. However, he happens to work all day collecting money from generous people.
Panhandling has many of the qualities of the usual means of employment. Firstly, like any other job, making a lot of money requires some talent. Some people walk around with a helpless look and a sheepish appearance, and others march in with a confident smile and an aggressive approach. Some people shake cups of change and others flash wads of bills. Some people are easily dismissed, and others make me feel very guilty. People with more skills make more money. Secondly, like regular employment, the more effort one contributes the more fruits are produced. Some people approach with a story and explain their situation to everyone that they see. Others sit on the street corner and call for help to those that pass by. Still others just sit on the floor shaking a cup full of quarters, and others just bury their faces behind cardboard signs. As usual, those who try harder are more successful, and they definitely bring home more money. Finally, although not that obvious, panhandlers do provide some sort of satisfaction to those who contribute to their cause. It always feels good to know that another person was feeling pleasure from your donation. Even if the person doesn't necessarily need cigarettes or alcohol, it is not for other people to judge what someone should or shouldn't choose to spend money on. He or she may truly need these products, and it feels good to know that you provided for someone’s needs. Even if someone has completely lied about his or her circumstances, everyone can use a little more money, and if it is not used on a bus ride home it may be used on next month’s groceries. And even if the person may not do anything worthwhile with the money, it is sometimes very entertaining to hear the stories that these people come up with, and I feel that, like any other entertainer, some people earn their money just by demonstrating their talents.
I am reminded of another story that involved a very professional panhandler. A few years back I was going on my very first date in Manhattan, and I was approached by what looked like a Jewish man with broken front teeth. He began to tell me a long story about how he was touring the city and an anti-Semitic taxi driver drove off with his bags still in the car. Of course, his wallet happened to be strategically placed somewhere in the car as well, and now he was stranded all alone in the big city. He needed me to lend him thirty dollars in order for him to take a train ride to Philadelphia. He was ready to take down my address, and he would mail the money to me as soon as he arrived back home. I don't think my date believed him at all, but back in those days I was slightly more trusting. I didn't have enough money to help him out completely, but I did give him more than a quarter, and I had him take down an address in order to see if he would return any of it. There were many holes in his story, and naturally he would never end up returning any of the money (at least not yet). After finding out that my father had fallen prey to the exact same person, I began wondering what could be done to punish such people. It is quite possible that I would run into him a second time. What if I would call the police on this guy? Then it occurred to me that the police wouldn't do anything because this person didn't do anything wrong. He gave me exactly what I paid for. He was a shrewd and talented panhandler, and he had definitely earned his money. I, in return, received the satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone out. Even if his story was completely made up, I can be sure that he put the money to good use.
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