He seemed earnest and sincere. Big brown eyes peered at me beneath dark bangs that needed a trim. His relatively clean black and white plaid coat matched his black jeans and Converse tennis shoes.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “Do you have a dollar or two to spare, so I can buy gas?” One hand gestured toward the nearby gas pumps and the other hand clenched a fistful of quarters.
I’d heard him call out to several other folks in the parking lot as I heaved bulging bags of groceries into the trunk of my minivan. I couldn’t hear how others had responded to his plea, but I’d listened to his dispirited, “Thanks, anyway,” and hoped he wouldn’t approach me.
It had been a long day and I still had a kid to pick up from basketball practice and dinner to cook. Plus, as a rule I don’t give cash to panhandlers. I’m downtown often enough to have been panhandled by a gamut of needy folks from disheveled men with missing teeth and graying beards to pushy teenage girls with garish make-up and surly attitudes. And while the city’s ban on aggressive panhandling has had some impact, I’m still asked for spare change quite often.
For a while, I carried cards from the Union Gospel Mission and fast food gift certificates, but after receiving less than enthusiastic responses from the recipients, I chose to stick with, my standard, “Sorry can’t help you,” reply.
Panhandlers aren’t only found downtown. I’ve been approached at shopping centers and malls, and each evening on my way home, I pass the same man with a worn cardboard sign on the corner of Division and Lincoln. The sign reads “Out of work. Family homeless. Need $$ for food.”
I don’t believe it for a minute. And research shows my skepticism is justified. A story reported by the Spokane Valley News Herald said that when the city of Spokane Valley formed an ad-hoc committee in 2008 to study the issue, research revealed that most of the money given to panhandlers went to purchase drugs or alcohol, and that many standing on street corners had permanent residences.
Spokane Valley Police Chief Rick Van Leuven said, “It does more harm than good when people give to panhandlers.”
And then there are the scary e-mails I’ve received, warning of purse snatchers and carjackers who prey on women in parking lots.
But none of that crossed my mind as I slammed the trunk shut and turned to find the young man facing me. “Excuse me, ma’am. Do you have a dollar?”
My hand was reaching for my wallet before my brain engaged. Yes, I had a dollar and I could certainly spare it. The parking lot bustled with traffic and busy shoppers – I didn’t feel threatened or unsafe.
As I handed him the dollar, he said, “I must look like such a dork.”
Suddenly, I knew why I wanted to give him the cash. He looked an awful lot like my 18-year-old son. Teenage boys are notorious for not planning ahead and usually run their cars with the needle hovering on empty.
However, I can’t imagine my son approaching strangers for spare change to fill his tank. He’d text someone to ask for help – if his phone was charged, and if he’d remembered to add enough minutes.
I looked into the eyes of the parking lot panhandler. “Yes, you do look like a dork,” I said, and smiled. “You look like one of my dorks.”
He laughed nervously. “Thanks a lot, ma’am,” he said. “I really appreciate this.”
As I shut my car door I heard him call out to someone else, “Excuse me, ma’am … ”
Who knows what he did with the money he collected that evening. Did he buy cigarettes, drugs, alcohol or a couple of energy drinks?
The only thing I know for sure is that brown-eyed boy is someone’s son. I’d like to think he used the cash to fill his tank, and that he made it home safe and sound to a family who was happy to see him.
But it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes it’s OK to give without judgment or expectation – sometimes it’s OK to give just because you can.