Change is Good

You can always come up with reasons not to give to others. (Is that panhandler really unemployed? Where exactly will he spend the money?) Author Elizabeth Berg was well practiced in such rationalizations, until a chance encounter forced her to rethink the true value of generosity.

spare-change-giving
Photo by Susan Meiselas

Last year, I rode the L train home to my suburb, just west of Chicago. I was seated between two women talking about the differences between the two places where they got their elaborate nail art done, and the conversation was very funny. As they each laughed, I kept wanting to laugh, too, but I was trying to maintain that I’m not listening to you face so that they could maintain a semblance of privacy. But then all of our senses of privacy were invaded, as a man began earnestly talking—speechifying, really—as he moved down the aisle.



Oh no, I thought. Here comes another person who practically commandeers a train car, subjecting commuters to his hard-luck story and requests for money. These situations tend to make me feel annoyed, but also uncomfortable and anxious. I know far too many people who have been robbed or mugged following a request for money. I also read the Chicago newspapers, where such crime stories abound, and sometimes those stories end with the loss of life.

So, like many others, I was disinclined to engage with people asking for money. I simply tried to pretend that the people who say, “Spare change? Can you help?” Or “How you doin’, miss? Hey, can I ask you something?” were not there.

The people in the train car with me seemed to feel the same way. They fell silent and stared into their laps, seemingly gearing up to dismiss the man making his way toward us. All that could be heard was the man’s voice getting closer and closer. At least it was soft—some of the men who commandeer train cars sound like tent evangelists—though I couldn’t yet make out the details of what he was saying.

When he finally stood in front of me, I looked up from what I had so pointedly been reading. The man before me was perhaps in his 30s, thin, dressed in a T-shirt and loose-fitting pants. He was pushing a stroller, and in it was a child about five years old, wearing shorts and sneakers and a striped shirt, eating a bag of Cheetos and swinging his feet in the universal rhythm of children. On his face was a mix of what looked like joy and a kind of benign self-absorption.

Indicating the boy, the man said, “This is my son. He’s got Down syndrome. He had to have heart surgery. Look here, this is the scar.” He spoke softly to the boy, urging him to lie back, then raised the child’s T-shirt. The scar was a thin white line, perhaps five or six inches long, running directly over the boy’s sternum.

I got that helpless feeling that comes when I don’t know what to do—or, more accurately, when I do know what to do but am not doing it. Something in me was saying, This man is OK. You should help him out. But I didn’t open my purse.

My throat began to hurt, and I got that helpless feeling that comes when I don’t know what to do—or, more accurately, that comes when I do know what to do but am not doing it. Something in me was saying, This man is OK. You should help him out. But I didn’t open my purse. The man continued, “We’re having a hard time paying the hospital bill. I wonder if y’all could help.”