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.

By Elizabeth Berg
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.”

No one moved. The man looked down at his son, who sat in a kind of radiant innocence, eating his cheese puffs. His father bent down and spoke very quietly to the boy, then took his hands in his own and, with infinite tenderness, used his shirt to wipe off the boy’s hands. “You’re a good boy. You remember, say ‘Thank you.’ OK?”

But there was nobody for the boy to thank. Not one of us gave that man any money. After a few moments, he began rolling the stroller toward the door between train cars, and I heard him tell his son, “Come on, we’ll keep trying.” He left our car, and people gradually went back to what they had been doing. The women who had been talking about the nail salons resumed their conversation, but they weren’t laughing anymore.

There was one second, just before the doors opened and the man left our train, when I could have reached in my wallet and given him some money, but I did not. Too many voices in my head were telling me not to.

I heard the voices of people saying, “Panhandlers are like pigeons; if you give to them, more will show up.” Or “Don’t be a sucker. If that person lost his job, let him get another one.” Or “It’s great that you want to help, but how do you know what he’ll do with the money? Lots of panhandlers are addicts; they just spend it on drugs. If you want to help, give the money to an organization.”

I also thought of my parents, who always believed in donating to charities. Every week they put their little white envelopes in the basket with the long wooden handle that was passed at church. But they never modeled direct, person-to-person giving for me, either.

The voice that I did not listen to was my own, which said, “Anyone who wipes off his child’s hands with that kind of care is a good man. What does $20 mean to you as opposed to what it would mean to him?”

No one can give money to everyone who asks. But when you come upon one of your species who is struggling, you need to let him know that you see him. Look into his eyes and let him look into yours.

That L-train ride haunted me for days afterward. Finally, I talked to a friend about it. I asked him, “How do you decide whether to give money to people asking for it?”

He seemed surprised. He said, “For me, it’s easy. If people ask me for money, I give it to them. I don’t worry about what they’re going to do with it. I figure the fact that they’re out on the street begging is hard enough.”

“But so many!” I said. “How can you afford to help everyone?”

He laughed. “Well, common sense comes in here. You do what you can.”

That man and his little boy are, no doubt, gone from my life forever. Still, I keep having this fantasy that I’ll get on the train and there they’ll be, that brown-eyed boy and his father. And I’ll give the man money, and I’ll say, “I’m so sorry I didn’t give you anything before.” And he’ll forgive me. Someone needs to. Because I don’t seem able to forgive myself.

It’s easy enough to hold a door open, to offer directions to people who are standing on a corner looking at their maps in confusion, to run after someone who has left her sweater in a restaurant. You pick up a book that someone has dropped; you offer to let someone with just a few groceries go ahead of you in line. The situation always becomes more complicated when dollars and cents are involved.

But in recent months I have stopped dwelling on whether or not to give money directly to people who ask for it. I simply follow my friend’s advice. I do what I can. I do what makes sense to me at the moment. I assess the situation using my own sensibility and my own moral standards.

No one can give money to everyone who asks. But when you come upon one of your species who is struggling, you need to let him know that you see him. Look into his eyes and let him look into yours. And the feeling that you get is not one of being taken advantage of, but of being blessed.

Elizabeth Berg is the author of 24 works of fiction and nonfiction. Her next book, The Bird Lover, a novel about the writer George Sand, will be published in 2015. She lives in Chicago.

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