Wednesday, October 20, 2010
White liberal guilt
My sister, her friend and I were walking back to the hotel last night on Michigan Ave at Wacker. We had passed a few beggars but had just smiled politely and kept on our way. One guy asked the traditional, "Can I ask you a question?" a question to which the proper answer is always "No" or no response at all. At least, that's what I learned when I read Paper Moon or whatever the book was from which Tatum and Ryan O'Neal made the movie. The con starts with trying to get you to say yes or to agree to whatever, so the first question is always something it's easy to say yes to.
And they said an English degree was worthless. Ha. Look what I've learned from books: how to avoid a con. Engineers don't learn that.
We had passed a few guys, ignoring their polite, "Can I ask you a question?" but still smiling at them because we are, after all, in the Midwest and we don't just ignore people who speak to us. We might not speak back, but we do acknowledge their existence. We just don't want to give them money. We give through our churches, which have homeless missions, and to other charities. We rest on those laurels.
As I was explaining to Jenny and Angela how we had narrowly missed being sucked into having all our money extracted from us simply by starting with a "yes," a woman approached us outside the Fannie Farmer Chocolates. (Not the Fannie Mae chocolates, as my sister had called them earlier.)
She looked like she had had a hard life: wrinkled, worn, horrible, horrible gray teeth. Two small children stood behind her.
"I'm black but I'm not askin' you for money," she said.
What? Did we have "racists who think black people are beggars and nothing else" tattooed on our foreheads? Why would she presume to say such a thing to us?
We stopped. What do you say to something like that? In retrospect, you roll your eyes and keep on walking, but we had to defend our honor as non-racists.
She continued. "Some man just called me a [n word]!"
Now what were we supposed to say. "OK, I'm sorry there are some jerks in this world and have a nice evening?"
"Me and my kids are trying to get to the battered women's shelter. I'm not askin' for money. I just need a bus pass."
Oh great. This could be legit. Now if we don't help, we'll feel like jerks.
My sister said, "I don't think we can do that" and started to walk away. Smart girl.
"You not going to let my babies stay out all night!" the woman said. "I'm not askin' for money! We just need the bus passes!"
Jen and I looked helplessly at each other. I caved. "How much does a bus pass cost?" I asked.
"Five dollars. Five dollars each. You get them at Walgreen's." She pointed down the block.
Wait a second. I'm not supposed to give her cash because that's not what she's asking for but I'm supposed to walk an entire Chicago city block to stand in line at Walgreen's to buy three bus passes and then come back to give them to her?
I was a little bit suspicious.
"We need to discuss this amongst ourselves," I said, and walked away from the lady.
My sister said, "You can spend the money if you want."
"I don't know. She looks awful," I said. "She's obviously poor. Did you see her teeth?"
Jenny snorted. "Yeah. That's called meth mouth. She's a druggie. And the way her jaw kept moving? She's jonesing."
"Oh!" I felt foolish not to have figured it out. "So we're supposed to give her the cash because we don't feel like walking all the way to Walgreen's or, if we do buy the passes, she'll just re-sell them."
"Yep," said my big-city, has dealt with addicts more than she ever wanted to sister.
"Then no," I said. "Let's get out of here."
As we walked away, one of the little boys ran up to us and told us his momma needed the money. A little salty guilt to rub in the wound.
Next time, I'm going to tell the woman that I would be happy to call CPS so her kids would have a safe, warm place to sleep.