Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

I prefer my gamble, thank you

You might sneer at me for giving money to strangers, but guess what? I actually, really don’t care.

I am on the way to Walmart with my husband when I see her. She is tall and slim, with brown skin and long dark hair, wearing a gray mask across her delicate features. I can’t place her ethnicity, although when she speaks to me she has a slight accent. Middle Eastern is what flits through my mind.

She is standing on the grass at the far end of the parking lot, holding a hand-lettered sign that says she lost her job and can’t afford food for her daughter. The little girl, with plump cheeks and black hair sticking out in spiky pigtails, plays around a stroller behind the woman, a bright smile on her face.

I fumble in my purse and find only two limp dollar bills, supplemented by four quarters. I swear to myself that I will never be caught short again, and the very next morning I go to the bank to withdraw two $20 bills. I have driven past the site twice in the last two days, looking for her.

I know, I know. Minimum-wage jobs are going begging right now. I am aware of the cost of child care, though, and I know that most of the good places have waiting lists. I don’t know this woman’s story, but I know that she approaches me with abject gratitude for a pitiful $3. I see no guile or calculation in her lovely face, only shame. Only shame.

The place is different and the people are different, but the scene and the subject are the same. I was jerked back 30 years to Grand Central Station in New York City. As I wove through the crowd on my way home from a freelancing gig, I saw a man carrying a child and pushing her stroller. The little girl was plump, wearing a white shirt and red jacket. A tiny face peeked out below a fringe of curly bangs.

The man was young, with a light shadow of beard and an open, unmarked face. The stroller was fairly new and nondescript. Nothing about the two particularly spoke of poverty. Yet the man walked along, chanting in a singsong voice. The words he chanted, walking along with the crowds ignoring him: “Can you help me feed a homeless child?”

I’m a long way from New York City now, way down south in Alabama, in a college town where such big-city problems are not supposed to exist. They do exist, though, and I have been told the homeless tend to congregate around Walmart. The chain doesn’t run them off if they are sleeping in their cars.

Way back then, I was a perfect mark. I raised five children of my own, and this little girl was just the age of my Joe. I guess she’s grown up now. I hope she has been as lucky as my son, who is now an architect in Florida. I felt compelled to write down my impressions as I rode the Metro North train home to the suburbs. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t remember that brief moment .

I had a soft spot for children, then and now. I could also, sometimes, almost, see myself in that picture. Not as the parent, but as the child. By the time my mother was 22 years old and my father was 24, they had five children born in four years. When I was 4, my sister was 3, my brother was 2, and the twins were newborn. My brother had cystic fibrosis. My parents had no insurance.

I was very young, but I think things got kind of tough. I remember eating a lot of dried beef gravy on biscuits for dinner, and one year wearing shoes that scarred my instep because they were too tight. I know that life can be tough. I know that good people can slip through the cracks.

So, I followed that man, all those years ago, until I caught up with him. A squat little woman, probably with grown children of her own, stuffed a dollar in the man’s cup. “God bless you,” he said. I stuffed another dollar in his cup. “God bless you,” he said again.

I imagined the people around me sneering. What an easy mark I was! The man was probably using the little girl to provoke pity, then he would take the money and spend it on booze or drugs. Then someone called out. “Why don’t you put her in foster care?” the voice said. The young man reeled, furious and sincere.

“Yeah, and never see her again!” he yelled at no one in particular. “Only a moron. . . .” and his voice trailed off. The little girl just looked at him, with that uncanny patience and innocence that toddlers show before they really understand what is going on around them.

Likewise, many people would say I was “enabling” the tall, willowy woman outside Walmart. Yes, I know that I am an easy mark, but I am also fairly sophisticated about poverty. I once worked for an organization that raised money for orphanages, schools, feeding programs and a child-sponsorship program in Latin America. It was my job to break vulnerable hearts with heart-rending tales of malnourished children. I know the techniques.

I also have traveled extensively, and I know that beggars can be very businesslike. I have seen gypsy women in Madrid who made a living begging. They found a comfortable spot, perhaps in an overpass shielded from the sun, and spread themselves out. They brought along two or three dirty-faced kids for effect, and one wily woman even displayed an enlarged black-and-white poster of herself with six or seven more children of all sizes.

And I dealt with pint-sized beggars in Santiago, Chile. Their alcoholic parents dressed them in rags and sent them out to beg. The parents kept out of sight; they knew the children would be more effective alone. The money the kids collected went for liquor.

But I also remember another man I saw in Madrid, many years ago. He huddled against a wall, his face hidden in shame. Next to his begging cup lay a hand-lettered sign. “I am a poor man from Andalusia,” the sign read. “I sold my house and came to the city to look for work. Now I can’t find work, and my children are hungry.” Somehow, I believed him.

What can I say? I’m an easy mark. I gambled that my dollar would go for a nourishing meal for the little girl, just the size of my Joe. And now I’m willing to bet my $20 on Walmart Lady, if I can find her again. I will also put her in touch with people I know can help.

There in Grand Central Station, so long ago, I looked at the people around me, the ones who would chide me for being a sucker. They hurried by, dressed in their heavy coats and their winter boots, maybe not prosperous, but surviving. Not one of them would have missed a dollar. Yet, many of them wouldn’t hesitate to drop 50, 100, even 1,000 times that measly dollar in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. And that made me mad.

I preferred my gamble, thank you — and I still do.

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