After seeing a Saturday night movie, my wife and I had come out of The Charles and were headed for the parking lot. At the corner of Charles Street and Lanvale, coming directly at us, was a good-looking man of about 35. "Uh, oh," I thought. And sure enough, he stopped us and started talking. He said he was embarrassed and hated to do this, but he'd had some bad luck. Could we help him out?
Like most people, we have had several such encounters. The most memorable was a few years back, in a parking lot after the end of a concert on the Green in New Haven.
A well-dressed, middle-aged couple had approached us and asked whether we could help them out. They said they had driven down from Hartford on their way home to Stamford, only to have their car conk out on the northern edge of New Haven. It was Saturday night and no mechanic was available until Monday morning. Could we stake them to the train fare from New Haven to Stamford?
That night, more money was involved than usual. I'd have to shell our for train rickets for two. And so I asked a bunch of questions. Their answers might have holes that would prove their story all cock and bull — or the answers might verify what they said. As they talked, their story seemed more and more plausible, and I was inclined to help.
Still, I was not totally convinced. I decided not to give them cash. Instead, I would buy them the train tickets myself. I invited them to get into the back seat, and I drove to New Haven's Union Station.
I bought the two tickets and walked with them to the track to make sure they got on the train. But the train was delayed, and I began to feel more and more uncomfortable. I told myself, "Either you trust people or you don't." I wrote out my name and address, told them I expected to be reimbursed, bid them good luck, and took off. No reimbursement ever came.
Now, at the corner of Charles and Lanvale, I heard another train story. He had planned to take the commuter train back to Perryville, but he hadn't known that MARC trains don't run on weekends. So he proposed riding Amtrak to Aberdeen and then finding a way to go on to Perryville. (He had enough money for a commuter train ticket but not nearly enough for an Amtrak ticket to Aberdeen.)
I began to ask questions. What kind of work did he do? He quickly responded that he was a boilermaker. Where had he worked? In the Navy. Where had he been in the Navy? He rattled off about a dozen ports. Why did he need to get to Perryville? Because of his arthritis, he was living at the VA hospital at Perry Point — at the "domiciliary," a word I'd never heard before.
The VA connection touched me because I knew a doctor who worked at this very Perry Point VA hospital. Also, the day before, I had been treated at the VA Loch Raven clinic. He showed me his VA identification; I showed him mine. The Amtrak fare to Aberdeen was $27, he said. I gave him a twenty and a ten.
A few days later, I ran into the doctor who worked at Perry Point and I asked him what he would have done. I also asked him whether there was such a thing up there as a domiciliary. There was. It was a facility where vets live while they get treatment for alcohol and substance abuse. The doctor said he would not have given any money. The patients in the domiciliary, he said, were "survivors," men who learn all kinds of ways to get by. "They've been doing it for years; they've perfected their acts."
So the question remains: When do you help? Most people would say that by helping you're "enabling." These people should get jobs. But nowadays there's practically zero likelihood of that happening. People who've never come close to hitting bottom might say it's all a matter of "individual responsibility"; it's always possible to transform oneself into a respectable citizen.
We who've worked hard for our money don't like being tricked. But we've got to be careful about giving the brush-off to every stranger asking for help. We might brush off authentic hard-luck cases simply because they're mixed in with a lot of fakers.
I'll continue to do what I feel is right in these situations — and if I get fooled again, well, that's a price I'm willing to pay.
Paul Marx lives in Towson and is the author of "Jim Rouse: Capitalist/Idealist." His email is email@example.com.