Things I love about my neighborhood.
I’m walking back to my apartment today, after having a pleasant breakfast date at an Unnamed Local Cafe where the food is so good that people line up outside the door every morning for their pancakes.
A woman is standing on the corner of Hastings and Whatever in a patch of dirty snow, with tears pouring down her cheeks.
She sees me coming–I’m a harmless, smiling, middle-aged, lower-middle-class “Soccer Mom” type in her early forties, visibly wearing a skirt and hiking boots under a nice grey trench coat. Purse over my shoulder.
I make eye contact in a friendly and concerned fashion.
“Please,” she says, her face lit up with distress and supplication. “Can you help me? I’m trying to get to a women’s shelter…the Powell Place women’s shelter…if you could help me with some bus fare…”
“The where–?” This is a genuine question on my part; I hadn’t been able to make out what she was saying properly. A woman crying on the street corner has already shifted me to Problem-Solving Mode.
Her eyes shift slightly away from my gaze. “The Powell street shelter? If you could–?”
“Where is that?” I actually haven’t ever been to the Powell Place Shelter, myself, but I’m already mentally calculating how long it will take me to walk back to my place, pick up my Shitbox Toyota, pick up this lady in the car, and take her to the shelter safely.
“It’s on Powell Street?” A few fresh tears flowing down her cheeks, eye contact becoming more firm. “If you could just give me some money for bus fare…”
I frown, thinking. “Would you just like a ride?”
Hesitation for a beat, then: “I have a couple of kids with me.” She indicates the vague region behind her, as if there were invisible children there, or hidden somewhere in the streets beyond. “If you could just give me some bus fare…”
More pointedly, and even more firmly at the mention of children who might need to get to a shelter on a winter’s day: “Would you just like a RIDE?”
Stubbornly, she re-winds the tape to get back to the original point of her pitch. “If you could just give me some money for–”
“Ok.” I speak gently, but firmly. And calmly, politely, without further waste of her time or mine–I walk on.
No, I didn’t give her money. It’s actually a tight month and I don’t have any; it’s why I didn’t fuss too much when a handsome Italian wanted to buy me breakfast, and why I didn’t hesitate to get the pancakes AND the eggs. It was probably the only solid meal I was going to have all day. No complaints–I could hold off an army with that many calories, much less do a day of writing.
What I love about my neighborhood…is that I can run into a grifter who delivers Broadway-worthy Pity Plays to strangers on a street corner. This woman was doing genuinely artistic work. Those were very realistic tears, and it was a very good appeal to human sympathy. She knew her audience; I looked like the kind of person who was visiting the neighborhood rather than living there, who would care about women’s safety and women’s shelters without ever having BEEN to a women’s shelter, or necessarily knowing where the nearest one was, exactly…
…so that I wouldn’t realize that the one she was talking about was within relatively easy walking distance.
I was already fairly certain that my assessment of the situation was correct, but just for the sake of information I looked up the shelter she was talking about when I got home. If she had really been needing to get to Powell Place, she didn’t need bus fare; she needed to start walking. She would have been there within 20-30 minutes at most, even if she was carrying “a couple of kids”…the way my own mother used to have to carry me sometimes, when I was a toddler, because she couldn’t afford to buy me new shoes.
I would never have penetrated her mask if I hadn’t been low on cash. Or if I hadn’t dated someone once who was extremely good at pity play (and other forms of emotional manipulation) himself. Or if I wasn’t the sort of person who would happily fire up her old beater and drive a distressed woman and her children just about anywhere in town, at the drop of a hat, to see them safe…who could express concern for another person’s well-being through action, rather than money, if money was not easily available.
People wonder where the personality of an older champion comes from: how the firebrand innocence of idealistic youth mellows to the unflappable calm and tempered steel of old age.
This is how it happens.
You’ll never get to the point that you’ve “heard it all”. But if you’re the sort of person who genuinely listens, who engages with people who are crying for help at more than the superficial level of throwing a few coins at them and walking away…eventually you’ll have heard and seen most of it. And you’ll realize how often an appeal to pity is a con game of some kind. How often the story people tell you is just a story, and the needs they’re trying to meet are different from the ones they’ve made up for the audience…because they think that their fictional needs are more likely to get them what they want.
You’ll certainly stop taking it personally when people lie to you, try to manipulate you, or take unfair advantage of your good will to get their needs met. Eventually you might even begin to have a certain appreciation for good theater when you run into it by chance, in personal relationships OR at random in the streets.
You don’t have to fall for a good con to admire it as art. And you don’t have to judge people, or interfere with them, because by chance you’ve seen through their game. Cadging a few dollars out of a stranger’s Soccer Mom Guilt is not a serious crime, in the scheme of things. Sure, maybe this woman was “just” going to use the money she hoped I would give her for some other objective. Maybe what she really wanted was something most people wouldn’t think was particularly righteous, like a dose of her favorite drug.
Or maybe it was just something she thought I wouldn’t understand. Honestly it’s none of my business.
The difference between a young paladin and an old one is outrage. Outrage is a companion of youth; it dies on the battlefield early, and leaves you better and stronger for its passage. Until it does, you will never really reach the full bloom of human compassion.
Some might say that it’s a pity that you eventually get old enough to be entertained or impressed by a good pity play, if no one is really being hurt by it.
I say they need to lighten up.