Sunday, January 19, 2014

Price of Admission

This is something that happened to me years ago that impacted my spirit of generosity.
It was when I was in High School.  My family was living on the western edge of the Inland Empire in the city of Ontario, near the airport that’s there.  
I didn’t spend a lot of time in Ontario itself.  I was going to a private Catholic school, Damien High School, in La Verne.  I took the bus for the first year I lived there and drove a car for every year after.  All my friends either went to school with me or lived in Diamond Bar, the town we’d moved from.  
I would occasionally walk up G street to Euclid Avenue, which was the “main drag” of the town, where all the shops, stores and banks were located.  
This one day, I was heading toward Euclid, and approaching this liquor store that was there.  I tried to find it using Google maps, but the area is drastically different from how I remember it.  The streets are wider, and it is far less tree-lined than when I was living there.  
Anyway, as I was passing this liquor store, I noticed this group of elementary aged girls hanging out near the entrance.  One of them approached and stopped me.  
“Excuse me...  I need to call my mom to pick me up, but I don’t have any money.  Can you help me?”  
I shrugged.  It seemed a reasonable request.  I reached into my pocket and dug out a quarter and handed it to her.  She thanked me and hurried off.  
She didn’t get ten feet away before one of the other girls came running up to me.  
“No!  No!  Don’t give her any money!  She’s a liar!”  She watched as her friend traipsed away.  “She’s gonna buy something to give to her boyfriend!”  
As if to prove the truth of her accusation, the girl I’d given the quarter to walked past the pay phone situated by the liquor store entrance and went inside.  
Ok...  Well...  I felt a bit duped, but I wasn’t going to try to get the money back.  So much for--
“Hey!”  The little girl that had given me the dope on her friend moved in front of me.  “If you’re gonna give her money, give me some too!”  He stuck her empty hand out at me.  
I shook my head and stepped around her.  It wasn’t even a situation of “fool me once...”  She was telling me flat out that she wanted money from me just because she wanted it.  
What I didn’t expect was the reaction that followed. 
“Please!”  She cried out to me, her voice as loud as it could be.  “Please!  You gave her some!”
“Yeah, because she tricked me,” I thought to myself.  I shook my head and kept walking.  
“Please...!  Please...!”  There was no a sob in her voice, which turned her plea into a painful shriek.  Then she said, “Fucker!”  
That got me to turn around.  She must have thought being called a fucker had changed my mind.  She stuck her hand back out at me.
“Please...!  Please...!”  
I turned away and starting walking again, must faster than before. 
She carried on like that.  I could still hear her when I reached the end of the block.  
“Please!  Please!  Fucker!”  
“Please!  Please!  Fucker!”  
This little girl, if she’s still alive, is probably in her forties now.  If she has kids, I wonder what’s she has taught them based on her experience with me.  
I’ve heard other stories since then, we all have, about the people begging for money on the street.  That they use the money for drugs or booze.  Or the one about some guy in college started a study to see how much money you could make panhandling and discovered that you could make so much that he dropped out of school and took up the practice full time.  
I remember seeing one news show, decades ago, that followed one such person.  He would wait in front of the transit station where he leaved and show passers-by a hand full of coins.  
“I’m fifty cents short of bus fare.  Can you help me?”  
People would put coins in his hand.  He’d pocket them and then show the incomplete fare to someone else.  In the interview, he talked about not overworking a spot, moving from one place to the other throughout the week, to keep from running into the same people.  
I think I would be more generous if I knew they really, really, REALLY needed the money.  AND were going to use it for the requested purpose.  
In this age of social media, instead of signs that have a variation of “will work for food,” they’d have their Facebook account floating over their head in a virtual overlay as proof of their situation.  But I guess such an account could be faked too.  
The most I ever gave someone was in downtown Los Angeles.  I was in my thirties then.  I went there to audition for a play.  After finding a spot, I asked this guy on the street for directions to the building I wanted.  He pointed it out to me.  I thanked him and hurried on.  
After the audition, I found him on the same street corner as I headed back to my car.  
“So, you’re an actor, huh?”  
After telling him I was, he started telling me a story about what happened when he first came to California, and all the famous people he’d met doing odd jobs and stuff.  One encounter weaved into another.  I listened, fascinated by all the stuff I was hearing.  Not quite sure it was true, but entertained nonetheless.  
“And because of that, just last night...” he said, winding down his story.  “I found myself stuck here, with no way to get home.  It’d be really appreciated if you could give me something to help get back home.”  He didn’t stick out his hand.  He did shrug his shoulders, like there was nothing else to be done.  
I felt like the tables had been turned on me, but it was a really engaging story.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out a five and gave it to him.  The price of admission was how I thought about it.  
Maybe I was wrong a moment ago.  Maybe I don’t need to know someone really needs the money in order to give it.  Maybe I need to find something in me that gets something out of giving it away.


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