“Excuse me, miss, can I ask you a question?” The man by the water fountain in the train station paused in his cell phone conversation. I eyed him warily.
I ride public transit every day and every day strangers stop me for one of two reasons.
First, I am a magnet for strangers who need directions. I used to think it was because I project a robust knowledge of Philadelphia, but then one morning I went up to New York City (which I don’t know as well) for a story, and while I was waiting for my driver amongst the flood of commuters pouring up the Penn Station stairs onto 7th Street, two different people chose me out of the whole crowd in the space of five minutes to ask directions. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked as a tour guide and travelers can sense it. Maybe I just look friendlier than your average commuter. Whatever it is, people stop me constantly.
I never mind helping people who are lost. That’s why I usually give folks the benefit of the doubt when they stop me, if I’m in an area that feels safe. But just as often, they’re stopping me for the second reason.
“Miss, I’m trying to get Wilmington, and can you give me just a $1.75? I just need $1.75 to catch the train!”
Fifty cents, seventy-five cents, a dime, a dollar, I just need to get to Chestnut Hill, Trenton, Malvern, 69th Street. Every time I pass through the train station. Usually I simply feign deafness. But a long weekend of varied assignments left me overwrought, and I still had not had dinner at 10pm.
“Oh yeah, you just need a dollar seventy-five, right?” I cried. “Just gotta catch the train, right? Yeah, you and every other person in this fucking city!”
Let me take a moment to apologize for my language (I know there are at least a few upstanding clergy members among my readers – I hope you won’t flee the premises). I don’t usually talk to people like that. But I want everyone to please note the motto of Alaina Mabaso’s Blog. So I’m going to tell this like it happened.
The man on the cell phone cursed back at me as I swept by.
We’re going to come to the poll soon. I’m going to ask you whether I’m a heartless crone for refusing to help people who ask for train and bus fare, but just bear with me for a minute first.
I am fed up. First, if I gave people the benefit of the doubt and bestowed fifty cents on every person who claimed they were just fifty cents short of their fare to Camden or wherever the hell they’re going, I would have no money left.
Many of these people who stop me are not attired like people in dire circumstances. They are often talking on cell phones or listening to headphones while they ask me for money. If you have an iPod and you can’t even take out your earbuds to talk to me, do you really expect me to believe you don’t have a dollar (or a debit card) in your pocket?
There’s always a story. My wallet got stolen. A car ran me down and I just got out of the hospital. My daughter’s all alone, giving birth in Thorndale. My friend was supposed to meet me but he bailed. I’m not going to ask you to give it to me because of the suffering of the blacks, but can you find it in your heart to give it to me as a fellow woman? There are various props and costume pieces, like a hospital wristband or a kid in a stroller.
Pass through the train station frequently, and you see people operating all day. Once I watched a man in a neck brace (who just needed enough for one bus fare, God bless you, just enough for one bus fare) approach a little family of suburban out-of-towners, who exclaimed over his misfortune and give him twenty dollars. Thirty minutes later he was at it on the other side of the station.
I am not opposed to giving charity. I donate for gardens at inner-city schools and I donate to earthquake victims. I donate to save starving children in Somalia and homeless animals and kids with leukemia. Yes, the amounts are small – I don’t have a lot to spare, but I volunteer when I can. As a writer, I try to give press to deserving local programs. I don’t object to my taxes going towards government programs that help homeless or hungry people. But I am at the end of my rope with these people and their dollar twenty-five to get to Cheltenham. I have been working my butt off all day running around the city and I am not about to give you a handout just because you asked for it. You can bless me or curse me, but I’m walking away.
And yet. And yet.
My conscience still nags me. What if I’m marching by someone who really needs help? Is seventy-five cents really such a big deal? Maybe I’m a selfish girl who donates to orphans half a world away while ignoring needy people right in her own city.
And so we come to the poll.
Let me conclude by saying that I have given money in rare cases. Once it was to a teenager who really seemed stranded. Another time, the conductor on the train had neglected to collect my cash fare, and when a frazzled woman came up to me with her sob story I thought my own unspent fare was some kind of sign from the universe and I gave her a dollar.
Do you have a story to share in the comments that will help me sort any of this out?