Billy Bragg--"To Have and To Have Not" (mp3)
Story #1: A knock at my door, late at night. I walk to the door and look out, see a black man at my door. Even as I reach it, he is already retreating, until, by the time I open the door, he is a good 30-40 feet from my front door. Then begins the whole "Excuse me, sir" rigamarole which no one believes, including both of us, about how and why he needs money. I go inside and close the door because it hasn't been that long since two black men broke into my home and only ran out because I caught them by surprise. They shouldn't have been scared. I had nothing. And the man at my door suffers for that incident. But, I do have money, and so, behind closed doors I try to figure out how to give it to him. I open the door. By then, he has given up on me; he is moving up the street. "Yessir," he says, "I'm here." "I'm going to put it on the front porch," I say, which I do. And then I close the front door and lock it. I'm pretty sure I hear him say, "Thank you." But I don't open the door again and he doesn't try to engage us again. He takes the money and goes.
Story #2: Broad daylight. Several days later. There is a knock on my door. When I approach the door and look out, there is a black man again who sees me and begins backing away from the door. Again, he wants money. This time, I take my little chihuahua outside with me. The dog barks incessantly, and I can barely hear what the man is saying. So I put the dog inside. The man asks me how my Thanksgiving was. I ask him what I can do for him. Again, it is about money. I search my pockets, but I have none. I suggest a neighbor who might give him some. He heads in that direction. After I close the door and go back inside, I confer with my daughters and we realize that one of them has some money. I decide that I will go track him down and give it to him. She hands me the money and off I go in her car. When I find him deeper in the neighborhood, he is in conversation with two of my very conservative neighbors, a husband and wife who don't even want our out-of-neighborhood trick or treaters coming in. I stop the car next to him in the street, hand him the money, shake his hand, and drive on. I know there will be repercussions for this.
I have spoken before on these pages about the poor and money. This time, I am even more conflicted on the subject, having just come from an exhibit in a museum in Cleveland about the hobos during the Great Depression and their various universal symbols that they would leave for each other. I would hope that, had I lived then, I would have been one of those homes that had a secret marking on it indicating to passers through that our home was a place where someone could stop and ask for a meal and get one.
But times are different. And "hobos" are of a different color. This time, I got a phone call from my neighbor who saw me drive up and give the man the money, telling me that he had some story about a car being out of gas and how they offered to give him gas, but he also asked for a cold drink, and when they came back with the drink and the gas, he was gone. So they drove down to where he said his car was and the car was gone. All of this related on my phone machine very smugly, to let me know that a) he was lying and b) I was a fool.
Now, I don't argue the second point. I can be incredibly naive and most certainly was in this case, but then, I never asked him why he needed the money. I accepted the fact that he didn't have any and that he wanted some. I guess I don't remember the Bible verse which says, "Before thou dispenseth thy money to the poor, thou shouldst ascertain the purpose of that money."
If I wanted money to buy beer, I reckon that most of you would give it to me and probably not even ask for it back.
There are currently about 14.8 million Americans who are "officially" unemployed, with reasons to believe that the true number is actually much higher. (For example, if you haven't worked for years, you aren't being counted at all).
That means that 1 in every 20 adults that each of us encounters does not have a job. Given how many of those people also represents families, the number of people who do not enjoy the benefits of a wage or salary is substantially higher. And each of those persons has needs (or wants) large and small that a church or charity can't possibly meet.
Yeah, I know I'm a sucker, and, at this point, often a pretty willing one. If I've got a few bucks in my pocket with no designated purpose, I often don't mind giving it away. And, I know that you may not want me as your neighbor, since I'll probably try to find a way to help out the person comes knocking, and then you'll want to accuse me enabling them. You think I should have turned him away. So be it. You were probably one of my neighbors who didn't want the trick or treaters in here either because you thought they were casing our houses. But where do you think he was going to go after my house? And what do you think your call to the police was going to accomplish? There have been others before this man. There will be others to follow, regardless of what you or I do.
It was Michael Stipe who once sang, "What we want and what we need has been confused." I think he's right, and it's a pointed commentary on consumerism and greed. But it touches all levels of our society, even those who have little or nothing. I don't see any of us becoming discerning, daily judges able to sort out the confusion between the two. Especially now.