You are walking down the street, planning to buy a cup of coffee for yourself to bring back to the office. You look down the block and see her sitting, her back up against a brick building. She is holding a cardboard sign. Because you don’t want to deal with the uneasy feeling of walking briskly by someone asking for help, and because you can’t be certain she really needs the help – Does she squander the money she has? Will she just do the same with the money I might give her? – and because you would just like to have a guilt-free cup of coffee, you decide to go down a block and hit the main drag via a different route.
You feel a little bad doing this, but your spirit lifts a bit as you detour around the need. Sure enough, as if on cue, there is someone else, sitting on an old milk crate, cardboard sign in hand, strategically planted on your alternate route … and it has begun to sprinkle a bit. You look up at the gray sky. I just want one guilt-free cup of coffee!
You consider going back to the office without the coffee. There, you think to yourself; is everyone satisfied? We are all deprived! For just an instant, you feel justified. The guilt is suppressed beneath a veneer of self-righteous self-sacrifice.
Wait a minute, whispers a voice from just over the back of your left shoulder blade and slightly behind your head, positioned just out of your peripheral vision as you twist your eyes around. You deserve a cup of coffee! You can’t detour every time you see someone pan handling. How much cash do you have on you? How much were you going to pay for that cup of coffee? You had been thinking about possibly buying a cheese danish to go with the coffee. What if I give the equivalent cost of the danish to the person with the sign? No! No, you think to yourself. I have to be able to buy a cup of coffee every now and then and not feel I have to contribute to a street person every time I walk over to the coffee shop!
Your face resolutely positioned forward, your eyes focused on the next intersection, you begin to walk. A bit more quickly now. Look like you don’t have much time, you say to yourself. As you approach the person on the milk crate you hear them asking: Might you have some spare change? Now, you either ignore the request, or your look down … and you become intensely aware that you are positioned so as to look down at the person. Not today, you say as you look them square in the eye. On you go, and you hear the benediction as you walk by: God bless you!
Not fair. It’s not fair that the beggar assumes the role of priest. He probably says that to every one that passes by, you say cynically to yourself. It occurs to you that perhaps you could say the same “God bless you!” to him; but it would ring hollow. With money in your pocket and a piggy bank at home inviting you at the end of every day, like a pan handler, to drop in the spare change you have collected, you increase your pace and pray someone else is coming up behind you to take the attention off you.
You get to the coffee shop. My oasis, you think to yourself. You have begun to plot a completely new “alternate route” back to the office; you certainly can’t walk by the same guy you said “No” to with a cup of high-priced coffee in hand. You could always return via the other street, the one with the pan handler you originally avoided. I can walk on the OTHER side of the street, you think to yourself as you take an introductory bite out of the cheese danish before placing it back in the bag to take with you.
Just then, over in the corner of the coffee shop, he sees you and motions you to go over to his table. You count him a friend; you also know he frequently asks for money … At this point you wonder if maybe you won’t start bringing bottled water with you to the office and just forget about coffee altogether. You are worn down; you give a couple dollars to the friend, and head back to the office via the alternate route.
What do ya know, you exclaim to yourself as you look down the street where she had been sitting up against the building. She’s not there! She has moved! You breathe a sigh of relief and feel the guilt and discomfort lift from you. You manipulate the danish in the bag so as to be able to sneak a good sized bite out of it – and then, you see her. She moved alright; she crossed the street. You are going to have to walk right in front of her and she is eyeballing you right now as you munch on the danish.