A young woman approached me as I walked through the parking lot of Safeway, my arms full of groceries, and I knew she wanted to tell me a story.
She drew my attention, and immediately I could have been a jerk, easily. Just by telling her what she was about to tell me. She was stranded. Somehow, people get stranded in this particular parking lot. They need to get back home, which is usually somewhere south of where we are, because their car has broken down or they’re out of gas. Somebody did them wrong. Sometimes an unseen child is mentioned.
I could have told her that I’ve heard the story before, nearly word for word, and how amazing that is to me, after all these years. I was hearing it, in approximately the same spot, since before this young woman was born, probably. I’ve lived here a long time.
And I could have told her that I knew it was a lie. Of course. Just a scam like any other scam, this one up close and personal, designed to tug at guilt and compassion until your pocket is picked.
I’ve been a jerk before, a couple of times. I’ve played the role of mentor in performance art, critiquing their deliveries and suggesting that some creativity needs to be injected. It was getting stale, this plea for gas money or bus money or money for whatever, money always.
I chose curiosity over jerkiness this time, so I listened to her monologue, recognizing the familiar elements and appreciating a couple of twists (she was pregnant, she tossed out as almost an afterthought, although there was no hint of a baby bump yet). I brought up the reality of the past 20 years or so; people don’t carry cash as much anymore. I certainly don’t.
She anticipated this, though, and asked if I couldn’t go back inside the store and get some.
I could have complicated things then, offered to fill her car up with gas, but unless she’d been taking improv classes the conversation would have quickly devolved into accusations and bad words. I considered my options.
I went back into the store and withdrew $20, and would have given it to her, but she knew I knew, and caution being the better part of begging she was gone by the time I came back, probably assuming I went to find a store manager to complain about being accosted.
I held all the cards, debit and otherwise. I was older but taller and probably stronger, not that I was threatened in any way. Mostly, I had money and she wanted it. That’s my superpower in this situation. My vulnerability, she hoped, my kryptonite, was kindness.
I’m not really that kind.
This is why we do what we do. Why we walk on by, why we turn our heads and pat our pockets, the universal sign for rationalizing our disengagement. I’d help if I had it, and so on.
That’s a lie, too, although a gentle and understandable one.
It gnaws at us sometimes, though, the need behind the stories and the signs, true or false. They sometimes visit us at night, all those Please help! and God bless scrawls. They trudge noisily up our stairs, like Jacob Marley’s ghost, dragging the chains they forged in lives we can barely imagine. We can’t help everyone. Can we help anyone?
Yes, we can.
Through REACH, approximately 75 people can find shelter in Renton on any given night. We can feed approximately the same amount each day. It’s not enough, but it’s an improvement.
And we don’t stop.
But we need your help. We are a nonprofit community organization that runs on an engine of human kindness. Your kindness. This is why we say “help us help.” We can’t do it without you.
Click on the “Giving” tab and consider helping us help. A little, a lot, it all works in the same way. You can’t help everyone; we can’t either, but we still believe that somehow, someday, we can.
Help us help. It’s easy, it’s simple, it’s appreciated, it’s goodness, but it comes with a warning: Once you start to help, it’s hard to stop.
And nobody likes noisy ghosts. They’re the worst.