I was getting ready to ride my bike Sunday afternoon when I noticed Kim looking a little down. I thought of something that would cheer her up, which helped me decide where I was going to ride today — to the scary convenience store on the outskirts of our neighborhood.
Every once in a while, we blow $20 on lottery scratchers. Nothing’s worse than buying one scratcher and not winning anything, so we pad the odds, wait longer, and buy more. With odds at 1 in 3.9, I like buying them in batches of four — that way, we spend $20 to scratch three non-winners, then get excited when we win $5 on the last one. We don’t do this often, so if anyone was planning to lecture us on futility and/or stupidity, get over it.
It costs us more to go to the movies for 90 minutes, and if we can fantasize for that long about winning big, then it’s worth it — even when we don’t win. (The challenge lies in holding out for 90 minutes before we scratch them.)
The scary convenience store is on one of my regular biking routes, and going there would satisfy our lottery rules 5 and 6 — it’s dangerous, and it hasn’t had any big winners yet. In case you’re dying to know the other six rules, feel free to order my book and read about them on page 106 — it will probably entertain you, and it could change your life. (Actual life-changing may vary.)
So, with a completely selfless plan to bring four scratchers home to cheer up my wife, I stashed a $20 bill in my saddle pouch and set out on my exercise regimen. That route also happens to take me by one of my favorite places to ride speed laps in an effort to burn more calories — the parking lot of a mostly empty shopping center near here. It’s large, open and more or less level, so I enjoy riding laps.
One end of the lot is usually devoid of cars, as the big store there went out of business. At the other end are a scuzzy grocery store, a sub shop, and several small businesses that I’m convinced are fronts for drug money. I ride far enough from those that it should be obvious I’m not a narc, so I’m reasonably sure no one is going to shoot me whenever I’m there. Plus, it’s not the type of place where people ask a lot of questions — particularly of some fool who’s just going around in circles. I like to think I provide some form of entertainment for the junkies.
Today, though, I was intrigued to see a beat-up van parked in my preferred lap zone. It was in the center of my circle, out of my way, so I started my laps without worrying about it. After a bit, I spotted a guy hobbling toward the van from the far corner of the parking lot, holding a gas can. That explained it — this guy had run out of gas, pulled into an empty parking lot, and hoofed it to the nearest gas station.
I kept riding as the guy contined to get closer, until I got a good luck at him. He was what I would call “haggard” and just looked generally defeated by life. I wasn’t unconvinced that he might hit me up for money, but I also wasn’t sure how I would answer him.
I’m not against giving money to people who need it; in fact, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to help out those who are down on their luck. The problem is the con artists out there, muddying the water. I’ve met enough of them to have become cynical. If you think this makes me a bad person, get over it.
I’m willing to help those who truly need help. I’m even willing to help those who simply want to blow the money on a cheap buzz. But I won’t give money to people who lie for it, if I can help it. They give a bad name to the others, and foment an unfortunate stereotype of the homeless and needy. And when they do that, the prigs out there withhold their money from everyone.
That’s a bad attitude, but a little cynicism is probably justified. There are con artists out there. I’ve seen ’em all and heard ’em all — from the guy who put on a removable cast behind the dumpster each morning before starting his day of begging, to the one with the prescription for “AIDS pills.”
A couple weeks ago, someone approached our car after we’d pulled into a parking space at a Dairy Queen, where we were planning to buy a treat for the boys. He walked up to my door before I could get out — sort of a no-no to begin with — and made a motion for me to put the window down. I have a hard time believing that a person in true need would be so aggressive, but I rolled down the window to listen. He said he’d just had a flat while driving with his daughter, he didn’t have a spare, and the police had recommended that he get a can of fix-a-flat.
This is going to sound weird, but I’m really tired of the fix-a-flat story. Yes, I’ve heard it that many times. I don’t know if it’s in the beggars’ handbook or what, but I have honestly lost count of the number of times someone has approached me and asked for money “to buy a can of fix-a-flat.” It got to be so commonplace that I started keeping a can in my trunk, just so I could call the bluff of the next person to request it. Then I got a flat one day, had to use mine, and never replaced it. Karma.
Sometimes I’ll offer to go with a person and buy the fix-a-flat for them, which also tends to call their bluff. Anyone who really needed it, would accept that condition. No one ever has.
It didn’t occur to me to do that with this guy, though. I just told him I was sorry, but I didn’t have any cash — which was true. We were planning to buy ice cream with plastic. He got mad, mumbled something under his breath, and walked away.
I think getting angry is another no-no if you’re asking someone for money, and probably a good sign that you’re being less than sincere about your needs. I’m pretty sure this guy was conning me, especially when also considering that: 1) it was 100 degrees out, yet he had apparently left his alleged daughter in the disabled car; 2) the police had seen that he needed help, but simply told him what to buy without actually providing any assistance; and 3) he had bloodshot eyes and reeked of cannabis.
My favorite beggar of all time was Jerome, whom I met at least four times in the course of a year while I was working at a downtown club. Employees had to park a long distance away, in a lot that was frequented by beggars, which made for some interesting late-night walks to our cars.
Each time Jerome approached me, he introduced himself and asked if he could hug me or shake my hand. I quickly stuck my hand out the first couple of times, then knew enough to do that before he opened his mouth on subsequent occasions. Because if there’s one thing you wouldn’t want Jerome to do, it was to open his mouth too much. The booze on his breath was that overwhelming.
Now I’m not judging anyone’s use of certain substances. That’s their business. But the olfactory evidence is probably a good indication of an ulterior motive to their request for money. And again, my one rule is, don’t lie to me for money.
The second thing Jerome would do was to ask me to pray with him. This meant more uncomfortable physical contact and more alcohol-accompanied words coming out of his mouth and into my face.
After praying, he would begin his story. Apparently, it was Jerome’s birthday. Four times in one year. And Jerome had just come to Raleigh a couple of weeks prior. In spite of having been a downtown fixture for months. (Jerome could have fared better if he’d been able to remember his previous marks.)
Jerome had come to Raleigh by way of Atlanta, where he had to leave in grief and rage, at the behest of his mother. See, Jerome’s baby brother had been killed in a drive-by shooting. And the cops had found his head in a dumpster.
So apparently, after the shooting, the drivers-by had hit the brakes, backed up, jumped out of the car, decapitated their victim, and properly disposed of his head before driving by again. That, or it was a true drive-by, and the gunman was so accurate that he neatly perforated Jerome’s brother’s neck, which easily separated from his body and flew into a nearby dumpster. I’m not sure which.
Jerome’s mother had asked him to leave town before he sought revenge and she lost her only remaining son, so he’d come to Raleigh and gotten a job immediately. In fact, tomorrow was always his first payday, but he needed money that night. For laundry.
Jerome had apparently gone through a lot of clothes during his two weeks of work, because he claimed to have four bags of laundry a short way from there, hidden in some bushes. No thanks, he didn’t need help carrying them, but he needed some money to wash them, and he needed to wash them immediately. Never mind that it was after midnight; this hard-working young man had chores to do.
I have to admit, I broke my one rule the last time I saw Jerome. It was late, I was tired, and I really didn’t want to stand through the story again. I was almost at my car when I heard the old, familiar voice: “Excuse me, Sir?”
I turned. “Oh, hey, Jerome.”
“My name’s Jerome, and today’s my birthday!”
“I know. Here’s a dollar. Good luck with your laundry.”
Plus, I figured I owed it to him, if for no other reason, than because he’d provided such entertainment to me and my co-workers over the months. If you think that means I’m a sucker and that I only contributed to the problem, get over it.
A dollar’s worth of booze wasn’t going to change anything in Jerome’s world, but it got me home before I could fall asleep behind the wheel. Those were late nights.
The point is, I feel comfortable making a judgment call on whether someone needs help or is conning me, and the guy I saw today sure looked like he could use some help. I stopped as he approached his van and he gave me his story — he was out of gas, had begged $1.25 to put some in his can, and was hoping to get some money to eat with after tending to his empty tank.
I looked him over. His fingernails were filthy with the kind of dirt one gets from working on a car engine all day. There wasn’t a trace of booze, pot or even cigarettes on him. He didn’t seem to be spending his money on those types of luxuries. His van had the look of one that’s been around a long time, and only kept together by the sheer will of its owner. He wore a not-quite-white v-neck undershirt, a pair of dirty jeans, and some worn-out tennis shoes. I was fairly certain he sleeps in his van.
He said he’d had a job, but lost it earlier this year, and tried to do odd jobs wherever he could. He asked if I could give him some money to help buy some food. He seemed to be sincere; if he was conning me, he was truly an artist. I asked him if he knew where the sub shop was on the other side of the parking lot. He said he did, and I told him I’d buy him lunch if he’d meet me over there. The grin that answered me was so sincerely joyful at the prospect of food, there’s no way he was conning me. This man was genuinely hungry.
“Man, a meatball sub sounds good about now!”
“I don’t care — Pepsi, or anything that has sugar in it.”
“You got it. I’ll see you over there.”
A minute later, I was parking my bike outside the deli and pulling the $20 bill out of my pouch. I figured I could bring home 2-3 scratchers with the change, and Kim would still have fun.
I walked in, a sweaty mess, and the guy behind the counter looked at me the same way I imagine a lot of people might have looked at the man in the parking lot — with disgust. But when he saw the $20 in my hand, he was willing to help. I ordered a large meatball sub just as the man came through the door, so I turned and asked him what kind of bread he preferred.
“Oh, just regular, and please don’t make it large — I’m not sure my stomach is ready for that much food.”
That one remark moved me in several different ways. For one thing, it set off some alarms, I’m ashamed to say. It seemed a little over-the-top. But the strange thing about it is, it made me almost wish the guy was conning me, because I wouldn’t want anyone to truly be that hungry.
I asked him if he’d like some chips, and told the cashier to please make it a combo. He asked if it was “for here or to go.” I think he wasn’t crazy about having this man eat in his restaurant, but the man was with a paying customer, and had a right to stay. I said, “For here, please” and the man from the parking lot said, “Yeah, it feels really nice in here.”
The cashier gave me a cup, which I handed to the man. “Go ahead and get your drink, pick out your chips and have a seat. I’ll wait here to pay.”
He hobbled over to the drink machine, clutching a thick paperback book that he’d brought in from his van. I think he was going to stay inside for a while, and he probably deserved to.
The total came to $9.76, so I figured I could stop at the convenience store and get two $5 scratchers. Then I felt bad about leaving a 24¢ tip, especially since the cashier had started acting more nicely and offered to bring the man his sub when it was ready. I asked him for change for the $10 bill he’d given me, and he said I didn’t really need to leave a tip, that he was used to it. Maybe today was my day to have my guilt played like a cheap harmonica. (I have no idea what that means, really.)
I asked him for change, anyway, and dropped some in the tip jar. We were down to one $5 scratcher, plus a few singles. I really wanted to cheer Kim up, so I didn’t want to part with that last $5 bill, but as I walked across the restaurant to where the guy was sitting — as far as possible from the other customers, who were shooting him dirty looks — the singles started burning a hole in my pocket. I asked him if he could use them for more gas, and his eyes brimmed with tears.
I handed him the money as the cashier brought his sub over. I thanked the cashier, wished the man luck, and promised to pray for him. He told me he’s available for odd jobs, and that I could probably find him in this parking lot for a few days. That might have set off more bells and whistles, but remember — he was parked well away from the dealers, in the abandoned part of the lot, where he was likely to be left alone at night. He wasn’t in that parking lot for drugs.
I rode to our scummy convenience store, thinking that maybe since I’d done what I hoped was a good thing, the single scratcher would be worth something. I parked my bike where I could see it from inside the store, went in and asked a cashier to pick out a $5 scratcher for me. She looked at me with bloodshot eyes and said, “Huh?”
I asked her which one I should get, hoping fate and maybe karma would do the rest. She told me the Wheel of Fortune game is new, that I should try that. I took that as a sign, since I already have a little history with that gameshow.
I finished my ride, came in with the single scratcher, and told Kim everything that had happened. I told her maybe karma was on our side, that she ought to scratch it immediately and find out.
First row — no matches.
Second row — no matches.
She started scratching the final row of numbers. No match, no match, no match, no match. One number left; this one had to be it. She took a deep breath, struck quarter to wax, and scratched in slow-motion. Did I see a match? Did I see a match with a big dollar amount underneath???
Nope. We got nothing. (Well, maybe not nothing, but we didn’t win any money.)
But you know what? We’ll get over it.