When I lived in Boston, I remember a homeless person who spent his days hanging out on the Common, asking morning commuters cutting through the park for money. He was always dressed impeccably, though you still knew he spent his nights anywhere but a warm house. He smiled and chatted with everyone who walked by. Morning regulars gave him gifts on his birthday. He could always start up a conversation about the previous night's Sox game. He always told the ladies how pretty they looked. All in all, he seemed to make a good living. I admired him. I even gave him money a time or two.
Then, down the street a bit, in Downtown Crossing, was a homeless woman. She used to sit on a milk crate, torn clothes, with two accessories: a sign telling the city that she desperately needed money to feed her 7 children, and an oxygen tank. Every day she'd sit there, not talking to anyone, hooked up to her tank, holding her cardboard sign. She had a prime spot on a busy street filled with an equal number of business people and tourists. One day when I was walking home from work, I saw a red pick up truck stop in front of her. I watched her get up, toss her oxygen talk into the back of the truck, toss in her sign, and hop into the passenger seat and speed away.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was getting gas on the highway on my way home from work. It was dark and rainy and cold, and I was in a rush to get home to my family. A woman approached me. She was dressed completely normally, in a jacket and scarf, and she was clutching an iPhone.
"Excuse me?" she said. "I'm sorry to bother you, but my name is Marcia and I work at the VA Hospital. My daughter took my wallet out of my bag and never put it back, I could kill her! Because of that I'm short $36.57. Can you help me out? I can mail you a check when I get home."
Oh, yeah? So I just give you my name and address...
If I were an un-jaded good human, I would have felt sympathy towards this woman. Instead, I felt anger. For two reasons: 1. because I knew she was lying to me and 2. because my first thought was that she was lying to me.
"I don't carry cash," I told her (truth). But she stood there, waiting. And in the silence, all I could think about were those stories you hear about people pulling over to help a stranger change a flat tire, and it turns out the stranded person is a celebrity.
The rational part of me said: do not trust this person. But the emotional part of me argued: what if this person really needs help? And the female side of me said: give her some cash so she goes away.
Finally, I scrounged up a a few dollars out of my console. "Here," I told her, "it's all I have."
She looked down – rather disappointed I might add – then went over to an SUV where someone was waiting in the driver's seat, where I presume she handed over the crumpled bills.
Then she turned around and headed back out to gas pumps, looking for someone else to harass.
Two days later, I was telling this story to a friend, who proceeded to tell me that the same thing happened to her, 25 miles from where I was, at another gas station, with the same exact story.
And I no longer felt bad. I wanted my $2 back!
When it's time to teach my son life lessons, what do I tell him?
That everyone lies?
That he shouldn't trust anyone?
That everything is a scam?
Because there IS good out there.
You just don't always see it.