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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


For as long as I can remember I like to tell people that I am not a nice guy, that I am just two steps forward and a left turn from being a full-fledged jerk. It's a thin line. If I had a shrink, my wife believes he'd tell me I was masking my true softy feelings, 'cause I don't want to just believe in everyone and get my feelings hurt. I say baloney. And frankly, I don't give a rat's behind what anyone else thinks! Kidding. I do care, even about those things I'm loathe to care about, because of my unhealthy suspicion and paranoia. I'm not A Beautiful Mind paranoid. Let's just call mine a case of extreme cynicism over the alleged goodness of mankind.

And that leads me to my point. I did a posting last week about a dude outside the grocery store who asked me for money to go buy ice cream. I didn't give him the ice cream loot. Instead I offered to go in w/him, let him pick out all the ice cream he could hold and eat, and I'd pay for it. He declined. Maybe he was insulted that I didn't trust his spending intentions. Maybe I was being a jerk. Or maybe I thought the liquor store next door factored into the equation. Maybe I didn't like the feeling that he was trying to play me for a sap. So fast forward to a couple of days ago.

I pull into the parking lot at Blockbuster, distracted w/the lines I was rehearsing for the clerks in order to convince them to not charge me the full price of a movie, in this era of no late fees (still not buying the argument this new system is better). As I back my truck into a parking space I stop rehearsing for a sec, 'cause there is a guy hovering in the next spot. He's standing there looking nervous, sweating like he had just walked the Green Mile. I'm not sure what to think.

I get out of the truck and he pounces. He's in my face faster than you can say con man. And he tells me a story about his car having broken down a few blocks away, and how his wife was with the car, and how they were new to South Florida from Boston (that accent was sure real), how he was tapped out and just looking for a little help to get them to the Tri-Rail station on Hollywood Blvd. And then the kicker - as he wipes the sweat off his brow, he shakes his head and says "People are so calloused."

I can't lie. That got to me. I spend a quarter of my day almost every day marveling at some of the crazy behavior I see around me. And so this guy's lament resonated with me.

He may have been a con. I don't know. But my instinct felt some truth. So I hit him with $20 to get him to the train station and on the train. He gave me his business card and took mine and said he'd send me a check in the mail. Pay it forward? I want him to pay it backward. Keep his word and repay my money. He can pay it forward on his own dime.

If I hear from the guy, it'll likely knock a few more bricks off the top of my wall of suspicion. If I don't, I won't be all that surprised. And I'll slap a few more bricks on top of that wall.

Some of you (including my own mother) told me to have a heart for a Sad Sack. This is my attempt. Hope it's fruitful. If it isn't, then no big deal. It's no more $$$ out of my pocket, literally.


  • You're a decent human being. The intentions of a panhandler, unwholesome or not, don't mitigate your decency.

    By Anonymous og, at 2:21 AM  

  • Interesting. I'd like to see how this story turns out...

    By Blogger Tere, at 8:02 AM  

  • In spiritual terms, helping somebody, as long as that was your genuine intention, is good for you. It really doesn't matter what they use the money for, once you gave them the money, fire and forget. You were trying to help them, if they use it for destructive purposes, it should not affect the good deed you have done, or tarnish it. The act of giving and the act of using the gift are completely separate, as if by a wall. Your portion ends at the exchange, the recipient then goes his own way. Just my opinion.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:49 AM  

  • I, too, would be interested in the outcome here.

    I've always been highly skeptical of people but I also sort of agree with Anonymous. Every good (or bad) deed you do comes back to you sooner or later, so it really doesn't matter what the guy did with the money.

    But if you think of it that way where do you draw the line? Give money to only 2, 3, 4 panhandlers a day...?

    By Anonymous Freddie, at 10:17 AM  

  • I hear ya, Anonymous and Freddie. The act of giving seems like it can only be a good thing. But my dad, a minister, used to always tell his congregation that "there is a fine line between faith and foolishness." Likewise I believe there is a fine line between being nice and being a sucker. So I feel like I have to be discriminating about when I give and to whom. To be fair though, I admit that when I "discriminate" I'm just guessing and using instinct that can't be all that good, 'cause I always lose at poker.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:39 AM  

  • I am very interested to see how this turns out...

    Good luck, and keep up this great blog!

    By Blogger ChargeOfQuarters, at 11:43 AM  

  • Faith and foolishness. I love that. Yes, there is a big difference, but every now and then, you need to hand a dollar over to someone just cuz. Just cuz the dollar ain't that important. Just cuz it ain't all that important to keep your guard up every minute.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:00 PM  

  • I usually give if the person asks in a respectful way, if my heart says to give. But I'm not made of money either, so it kind of depends. Also, there are certain times where the person comes across like a scam, like when you scope them out in a parking lot with a gas can in their hand, going from car to car. I never give to them. Truth be told, it is pretty arbitrary. But I still think that no matter who or when you decide to give, it is good for you in a spiritual sense. I just hope it isn't equally bad when I arbitrarily decide not to give, even when I know I have that washington floating around in my pocket. I have to admit to that. I don't really have a rhyme or reason to my decision making process. I do it especially when I see the same person more than once. There is a guy that the first time I saw him I gave. The next time I didn't. I can't explain why, and I kind of felt a little bad after. Wow, what a great topic/question. food for thought here that goes on and on.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:09 PM  

  • Oh I just remembered one other time I helped someone that relates to this. I was eating at a restaurant in D.C. with my wife, and after the meal I went out for a smoke. A vet in a wheelchair asks me for money, says he's hungry. I didn't have any cash on me at that moment so I told him no. I went back in and realized my wife had left about half of her steak and she was going to take it home for later. Spontaneously, I took the steak, a tortilla, some rice and beans and put it in the to-go box and went back outside to look for him. I think initially I was a little skeptical, and I was curious, kind of like James with the ice cream. I had to look for the guy for a while because he had disappeared. I went around the corner and found him at the bus stop. When I gave him the food, I have never seen such a genuine expression of happiness and gratitude. I really made the guy's night, if not his week. It was a really great feeling.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:18 PM  

  • Give it up. Your money has been spent on rioutous living and will not see your hands again.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:04 PM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:16 PM  

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