Monday, May 25, 2009

Triumphs in Adventure or When Sympathy Goes Out the Door

My friend and coworker Z  had a heart of gold.  Her grandparents raised her, so her attitudes and sensibilities were that of a generation before, which made her seem naïve and somewhat sheltered in the way she looked at things.  This made her all the more endearing.

One afternoon she spotted an elderly man sitting on the curb in front of the bank.  He sat there for a while then would walk up and down the street begging, but eventually would sit down again. As she watched him all day, she kept commenting on him. When he moved out of sight, she would look for him out the windows.  She wanted to offer him a seat in the lobby.  The manager said no.  Z became more and more agitated wondering what would become of this poor man. 

She kept saying, “We have to do something.  Can we call someone?  Maybe he’s lost.  Poor thing, he needs someone.”  Her concern started to become an obsession.  The other women in the office would comfort her or assure her that he looked in good shape and seemed content.  Besides they told her, he was begging, so he would probably get some money soon and then leave to get food or drink.

Being the sweet and caring person that she is, Z couldn’t watch the poor man outside and just sit by and do nothing.  “He reminds me of my grandfather, poor thing.  Maybe he is thirsty, he’s been out there so long.”  So Z took him water, twice.  Soon she decided he needed something to eat, so she took her lunch out to him.  He thanked her for her kindness.  Z felt better, but wanted to do more.  She asked if anyone else wanted to give up his or her lunch.  No takers or more accurately, no givers.  She went out a fourth time to ask if there was someone she could call for him, a relative or friend.  No, he told her sadly, he had no one in the world.  This just broke her heart. 

Soon she became upset, crying over the old guy’s plight.  Finally she called the police to come to his aid, to maybe take him to a shelter.  Before they came she ran out to give the man five dollars.  Z was beside herself with grief and sympathy.

When I worked downtown for a few years, beggars stopped me three or four times a day so my need to help grew less and less.  One day my husband witnessed a man in a wheelchair begging and the next instant, hail a cab, jump out of the chair to catch up to the car, and threw the wheelchair in the trunk.  To watch Z’s concern and generosity reminded me how callous I had become.

The police pulled up and talked to the old man as though they knew him and took him away.  The police officers returned to the branch to find out if there had been any problems with the old guy.  Z, full of concern, ran up to the officers hoping for information and when she returned she was livid. 

Apparently the old guy does this on a regular basis.  It’s an “adventure trip” for him.  He leaves the half way house or shelter and decides to walk in a new direction to see how far he can get, the farther the better, gathering points.  Then he waits for someone sympathetic to help him.  If he can get food and drink, he gets extra points.  If he can get a beer, even better.  He times how long it takes for the police to be called, more points.  When the police take him back, his friends are waiting for him on the porch cheering.  “He gets out of the car with his arms triumphantly in the air.  And the other guys greet him like he’s a conquering hero returning in his regal chariot.”

Z’s anger and humiliation was as intense as her worry and sympathy had been a few minutes before.  She went on and on about what a fool she had been.  “I gave him MY lunch. I gave him money. He played me.” We tried telling her it didn’t matter.  She did what she felt was right and that was the most important thing.  She was being true to herself and that she should feel proud of that.  But that did not console her.  She finally declared, “I will never help anyone ever again.” Maybe one day she can find the humor in it all. 

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