Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Naive Bleeding Heart or Sucker?

Last Friday I got my first paycheck from this contract.  Because it was the first, it was a paper check, direct deposit should kick in for the next one. Between work and a beer date, I rushed to the ATM to deposit it. I pulled in to the parking lot (in my tri-colored eighteen year old car that smells like oil/gas) and an African American woman, in her forties with a sling on one arm approached the car.  She asked if she could ask me a question.  I was skeptical but said ok, but it had to be quick.  She started to roll out how she and her husband were trying to provide for their kids and she has pictures of them and yadda, yadda. I had my check and my bank card in hand to go to the ATM and said, "This all has to go to bills".  She said "thank you anyway and than you for being so kind and treating me like a human being".

I crossed the parking lot lane to the ATM.  I had to wait a couple minutes while someone finished up and then I stepped up.  As I did so, a gentleman, maybe in his late 40's-early 50's, very overweight and leaning on a cane stepped up.  He was sweating profusely and laboring under his weight and the weather.  He said he wasn't looking for a hand out.  He wanted to earn some chicken and milk for his kids because the food stamps he got weren't enough.  I was a little flustered trying to listen to him as I followed prompts from the ATM but said I was sorry I didn't have any work to be done at the house.  Again, he thanked me for my time and for being nice.

I understand the logic of their asking/begging at a cash machine because we've all used the line "I don't have any cash", which can be true.  At the ATM, it can't be.  I think the fear/risk outweighs the benefit for them though.  Many people, including myself occasionally, feel nervous with a big check/lots of cash in hand.

There are two things that really struck me about these exchanges that both happened over the matter of about ten minutes.

The first is that both of these individuals, who I don't believe heard or saw the other, thanked me for being nice, listening and treating them like human beings.  Why is that so extraordinary? I am stunned dismayed that the poor are so disregarded in our society, though I am not surprised. When 25 and I went out for New Year's Eve I talked with a homeless man as we waited in line for the show we were going to. He also commented how few people were kind and even just to chat.  I can see that people are on guard because they are expecting to be hit up for money or help.  This gentleman from NYE had a tin out but didn't ask.  He seemed happy to drum and chat away, enjoying that someone had noticed him.

I understand that politicians and society at large has seen the poor and economically disadvantaged as a throw away group.  The bit that breaks my heart is that even as individuals, in a one-on-one situation, people are so dismissive of those who are struggling, even in this time of economic downturn on a massive scale. Thousands and millions of people are hurting financially now and weren't five years ago, there are probably an equal number of folks on the edge of the bubble.  I have the security of knowing that I don't have kids, I do have family to lean on in times of need.  Not everyone is in such a position and I have empathy for those who are striving to survive a difficult time.

Second: why do/did I feel like a heel for not giving them money?  I donate both time and money to charitable groups that suppose a variety of causes, homelessness and hunger among them. I donate to food banks and reusable good to St. Vincent de Paul and Goodwill. I was in a hurry and not obligated to give them money, especially being that that ATM dispenses only twenty dollar bills.  That all considered, twenty or even forty dollars would not have bankrupted me.  It was my first paycheck in about seven weeks as I just started working again. Mentally, I'd already allocated most of the money for bills and such. And yet, four days later, I am still thinking about it.

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