A couple of days I go I pulled into my local gas station/general store on my way to a well deserved treat. As soon as I got out of my car I was approached by a well dressed, clean, nice looking young man, probably in his late twenties. His car was at one of the gas pumps and there were several people standing around the area visiting with each other. He made a bee line for me.
In a respectful and polite way he said, “Sir, I was wondering if you could give me some money for gas? I am on a religious mission to help build a yurt in North Carolina and I don’t have any money. Could you help me?”
I looked past him to his car and noticed that it was a late 80’s model something, packed to the roof with stuff and that it appeared that he was alone. I said, “You have no money? How do you expect to get to North Carolina without any money?” He said, “I rely on the kindness of strangers. When I need a place to stay or a bit of food or gas I ask and I’m happy for whatever I receive. Could you help me, please?”
So now comes the point in the story where you get to participate. What would you do? Is this a scam? Is he a con artist or a free loader or a druggie? Or perhaps is he sincere doing what he is called to do and just asking for some help? Think about it, what would you do?
I have asked my friends and the answers have been surprising. Most people say they would either give him nothing or a single dollar and then walk away. When I have asked my friends why they all tell me that they have had some previous bad experiences with panhandlers and are hyper defensive now. A few people say that they would’ve given him some cash and wished him well. I didn’t do either one of these options and I now regret how I did what I did do.
I said that I would go into the store with him and tell the person behind the counter to give him $10 worth of gas. I was thinking that this would ensure that he would only be able to get gas with the $10 and nothing else. And that is what I did. He got his gas, he thanked me and heading off, the next 200 miles courtesy of me.
This is what I regret. I should’ve engaged him in some meaningful conversation to really figure out what this young man was about. It would’ve taken me about 5 more minutes and it would’ve probably enriched me considerably. I also would’ve gotten a much better story out of it.
After those 5 minutes I hope I would’ve taken him inside the store and said to the kind person behind the counter who I knew well, “Please give this nice man all the gas he needs and food for this $50.” Then, I hope,I would’ve thanked him for his inspiration and wished him good luck on his journey. This last bit is probably too much for me to hope for me to do but it feels good writing it now.
Am I an idiot to think and act this way? Perhaps. A naive bleeding heart fool just waiting for the next con to sucker me into giving away more cash? Perhaps. But, perhaps, this young man was truthful and sincere. What then? Ten dollars is really nothing. I probably have more change in my sofa than that. Twenty dollars? Is that enough? Fifty? If he was sincere and was really relying on the kindness of others I should’ve done much more than I did. I also should’ve talked to him much more and listened to his story- I bet it’s a fascinating one.
Next time this happens I am going to slow down and think about what I am going to do. I hope I am not so cynical that I dismiss this type of thing automatically. And I hope I am wise enough to know if it is a scam or the real thing. Now I wish I could find him and help him further. Two hundreds miles is not such a long ways to go.