Sep 25, 2008

Good Samaritan vs. Schmuck: Would You Help out a Stranger Who Just Needed a Few Bucks?

A new writing colleague of mine asked this question . . .
Today at a NYC bar I sat beside a man, total stranger, a local schoolteacher, who discovered he'd lost his ATM/debt card and he had a $14 tab. I paid it, with tip, gave him my address and asked him to send me the money. I did this once before, similar situation in NYC, same amount, $20 and was repaid within a week or so by mail. If he does, great. If not, seemed like the right choice -- it could happen to any of us.

Would you do this? Why not? Has anyone done it for you?

My answer . . .
Yes. Because somewhere lurking in the back of my cobwebbed ego is an impression of myself as being a "good buy." Good guys share, right? It also gives you a little kick of good-will resonance afterward. And I like the Golden Rule—it makes sense to me. But mostly, I like myself better with an open rather than a closed heart.

That being said, not every monetary-aid-to-a-stranger event is a positive one. When my hubby and I were in Rome for our honeymoon, a stranger drove up and stopped us to ask the way to the Vatican (we were in front of the Vatican). That should have alerted me that something was awry, but he was Italian and we were, well, turisti. Then, he said his gas tank was almost empty and he didn't have enough money to buy gas, and could we spare a few lira. The request was so humble, that I immediately reached for my money, and while I did so, he handed us a suede jacket, still wrapped in its store wrapping. I couldn't understand why he wanted to give us a jacket (it was scorching hot), but I figured he felt bad about being strapped for cash and wanted to offer us something in exchange (something we did not want, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings). While I was wondering about that, he then asked us for the equivalent of $60 US. Now that sent off alarm bells, and I told him we did not need the jacket and were not interested and good luck. The upshot is that he changed his story once he saw we were "buying into" what became obvious was just a scam.

That was likely a singular event, and undaunted, I still help out strangers when I can—especially letting people with a few items cut in front of me at the checkout counter when I have a shopping cart full. The positive juju this whole “trust in the good nature of fellow human” spirit stirs up is well worth any inconvenience and any occasional odd negative experience.

Probably a few rules of thumb are in order, though—you decide for yourself what they are. For instance, the dollar amount should be under X amount ($20? $10?). The request should not put you at a disadvantage, e.g., if you have a child in your arms and you have to put the child down to help. And lastly, you should get a good intuition about the person first (nothing scary or creepy).

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