Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Have And To Have Not

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.


Sara C said...

I don't find you naive or consider you a sucker. You haven't been conned or "taken." You gave with your eyes wide open to the reality of our world. Instead, I would call your neighbor naive - the one who even for a moment entertained the notion that the person who asked needed gas money or bus fare or whatever story was told. The bottom line is this: until you have asked a perfect stranger for money, you have no concept of the desperation that requires such a request and the humiliation that accompanies it. And until I have some compelling reason not to, I am going to be right there with you, giving away whatever I have, not caring about the reason or the result.

Billy said...

I'm at Kanku -- the one at the corner of McCallie & Central -- on the way downtown filling up the tank. A woman parks her car at the next pumps. She walks over and asks me for some money for gas. I tell her I'm sorry, but no. She returns, pumps 10 gallons of gas, and goes in and pays for it.

I'm not saying she was conning me. All I know is that, if I had enough money to actually pay for something, I could never imagine asking someone else for money on top of that. Perhaps my helping her would have helped her buy an extra bit of food later. Or pay a heating bill. Or buy an extra 40-ounce. I have no idea.

I do, however, believe this, Sara: It is far easier than you would like to think for people to ask for money. Like many things in life, I imagine the first few times are difficult, but eventually, you become numb to the humiliation or shame. Like anything else, you do it enough, and it becomes second nature. It is my honest belief that this woman didn't need my money; she just figured I looked capable and figured it wouldn't hurt to ask for a few bucks. Worst I could do was say no, right?

Which is why I try my best to give money to organizations whose mission is to help those less fortunate. My money is better utilized, in my opinion, by groups whose entire purpose is finding those in need -- the Interfaith Homeless Network, for example -- than it is with me trying to judge the needs or situations of each person who asks me directly.

Charitable giving doesn't take me off the hook. But it is, in my opinion, a vital part of this conversation. The IHN does some amazing things. Supporting them is at least as noble -- and, to be fair, just as naive or con-able -- as giving to the man at your door.

The only crime, it seems to me, is when nothing is given, when no sense of shared responsibility is felt, when "they" are "bad."

Billy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
troutking said...

I agree with Billy on this one, though, if I'm honest, my reason isn't as high-minded as his. I just really don't like being approached and asked for money. Whether I give or don't give, I always feel bad. I'd rather give my money to a charitable organization or the government to help people out than actually have to do it myself. I guess that's why I'm a limousine liberal. Without the limousine.

Bob said...

I suspect that both Billy and I are guilty of trying to generalize from a particular circumstance. A person scamming you at Kankus, a person who seems sincere at my front door, probably don't make the general case. Nor does my friend's ex-wife who finds it more lucrative to take government money than to look for a job.

I've not had to beg for money, but I have, in a moment of desperation involving a friend's potential suicide, had to stand at a roadside in California and beg for a ride from business people rushing to work. It was not easy; I do not expect that it would get easier the next time. For me, at least, having to throw myself on the mercy of other people has never been easy.

I don't give out money at gas stations; it pisses me off to be asked. For some reason, the person who walks up to my door seems different, both real and more dangerous, to be honest.

But my bottom line is that, as both Sara and Troutking suggest, it's the personal issue we all have to work through. Governments and charities may provide some level of necessities, but let's face it, as Americans, we are living rightly or wrongly for something well beyond the necessities and all of our citizens expect that. Perhaps it's easier for some of us than for others to justify to ourselves the necessary words or actions to get what we want or need.

Sara C said...


I hope you won't hate me for pointing out that your words reveal a position of luxury. You wrote "I imagine the first few times would be difficult." That is my point exactly. If you've only ever imagined it, you can't really understand what it feels like. I've asked for money numerous times in my life, and in almost all of them I was in a position of relative wealth asking for money for some charitable cause. Sure. A no-brainer. But I've also had to ask for money (not of strangers, thankfully) from the position of relative desperation, and it is does not get easier. And I can only pretend to imagine what it feels like when the desperation is worse than what I was experiencing at the time. Me, with no kids, three jobs (just none that paid enough), and a car that was still running. I didn't ever get to the point that some people find themselves in every single day. And yeah. There are those who are doing the wrong thing, and I feel as uncomfortable as anyone sometimes, but I still try to give. I just can't stop thinking no one would do it if they didn't think they had to.

Billy said...

@Sara - I get your point, but if we are deemed paralyzed and unworthy of judgment lest we have walked a proverbial mile in someone's shoes, then I have a lot of apologizing to George W. Bush, among others, that I ain't about to start making. (As do all of us who haven't been POTUS yet dare to question any of his decisions.)

To paraphrase John Bender from "The Breakfast Club," I've never been a leper, either, but that doesn't make me capable of some fairly accurate judgment calls about the experience of being a leper. Let's avoid the deal-breaker that we must have been there to have any say in something, is what I'm asking.

From my life and from the experiences of those I've watched or studied, very few things don't get easier with repetition. Ask a drug addict. Ask a medical student. Ask a soldier or a serial killer. I'm not saying there aren't people who don't have to stab their souls every time they ask for help, and I know millions of them aren't running any cons (or at least not cons that don't have legitimate needs behind them). But the dull look in many a beggar's eye suggests their pride is long gone. This doesn't make them less deserving of sympathy.

I've done plenty; I'll never do enough. So I try to wrestle this demon by finding the best and wisest and most sincere ways to do my part (or, OK, a fraction of it) without endangering myself or my family. But I insist I would rather give the IHN my $10 and drive the panhandler to the soup kitchen than to just hand him the $10. And yes, I've done exactly that several times. (OK once it was McDonald's, but you get my point.)

@Bob - Obviously, an awesome blog. It deserves heavy discussion, and of course we're all wrestling with our consciences on it. Those who don't have to wrestle on this one are so far on either end of the Bell Curve that I probably don't know them very well. Or they know me, despise me, and avoid me!

Sara C said...

Good point, Billy. I love a healthy discussion among friends!!! You guys rock.