Commentary: The kindness of strangers

I get approached frequently by panhandlers, and I used to wonder why. After all, I’m a large male, and one would think that I’d be the last person to get hit on.

I’ve come to realize, however, that it’s that selfsame size and gender that make me approachable. I’m not likely to be intimidated by an oncoming stranger, and I might even be a soft touch—think gentle giant. That may be piffle, but whatever the reason, I get solicited frequently by mendicants of all types and stripes.

This comes to mind because recently our neck of the woods—St. Anthony Park between Como Avenue and the BNSF Railway tracks—has seemingly been overrun by young boys knocking on doors and asking for money under a variety of pretexts. Our first experience was last winter, when three kids knocked on our door and offered to shovel our walk. We said yes, gave them shovels and paid them $20 when they were finished. Subsequent inspection revealed a substandard job, but I didn’t really care. I was impressed that kids were actually out looking for work.

We’ve seen these same kids again several times since then. One knocked on our door at 9:15 p.m. wanting bus money, and I gave him $2. Another time, two of them came to my garage and asked if I needed my lawn mowed. (I didn’t.)

These kids have generated a lot of postings on the Yahoo SAPark listserv, so the last two times they’ve come to our door, asking for money for food, we’ve said, “There’s concern in the neighborhood about you guys. You should ease up on this business of going around asking for money.”

We haven’t heard anything from them since then, although we still see them in the neighborhood. There are only three or four of these kids in total, and they have neither threatened anybody nor stolen anything. They seem to be OK kids who would like to have some money. If they ask about shoveling my walk next winter, I’ll say, “Sure, but let me show you how I like it done.”

I take supplicants case by case. There used to be a guy in front of a local liquor store who claimed to need cab fare home to White Bear Lake. Unimaginative plot, flat performance. Two thumbs down from Adam.

The second time he approached me with the same story, I said, “Oh, I’m the mayor of White Bear Lake. What street do you live on?” Fft. Dude was gone.

But then there are instances where a performance merits reward. The guy who came up to me on Broadway in New York City one night and said, “Excuse me sir, would you be willing to donate to the United Negro Pizza Fund?” didn’t win an Oscar, but he got an Alexander Hamilton from me. And a man stopped me on Fifth Avenue at Central Park on a Sunday morning and regaled me with a classic: “I live in Westchester County; I came in to town this morning to do some work; I locked myself out of my office where my wallet is; I need money to take the train home, and if you give me your address, I’ll mail the money back to you,” all as though scripted by Eugene O’Neill and acted by Sir Laurence Olivier.

I said, “I’ve heard this one, but that’s the best performance of it I’ve ever seen. Here’s five bucks. Oh, and please don’t tell me anyone has ever actually given you their address.”

And there are those to whom you know you shouldn’t give money, but do anyway: Last month, in my local supermarket parking lot, a rail-thin woman who was literally foaming at the mouth wanted $13 for a can of flat-tire sealant, and I gave it to her. Was the money going straight into her arm? Very likely, I suppose, but the thought at the time was, okay, she’s definitely a junkie, but maybe she really has a flat tire. No? Well, there’s that large furry male heart again.

I guess I give people money because they’re down on their luck, and while I’ve never been down that far, I have occasionally had to rely, Blanche DuBois-style, on the kindness of strangers.

On a tour of Great Britain in 2001, I played a show in London and then drove that night, guided by my host, to his house. I woke up before anyone else the next morning—Sunday—and decided to take a walk around the neighborhood.

Before I knew it, I was lost, with no money or cell phone or ID, no knowledge of my host’s name, and no clue as to which street he lived on. Hypoglycemia kicked in right about then—along with mild panic—and I wandered the streets shaky and sweating, trying to figure out what to do. I was just about to ask directions to the police station (where I assume I would have had to stay until my host awoke and figured out something was wrong) when I remembered the name of a pub near my host’s house. I asked the next passerby, and he directed me to the pub, about four blocks away, from whence I found my way back to the house.

So, bad and sad things do happen to good and righteous people, and I try to remember that when I hear, “Excuse me, sir—.”


Adam Granger lives in St. Anthony Park with his wife and son and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.

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