Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I don't know. Remember last week I was writing about my encounter, outside the grocery store downtown, with a down-and-outer who wanted just a couple of dollars? I turned him down. But I did want to understand a little more about the spontaneous mental and ethical gymnastics that went into that decision. Well, yesterday I had a second chance. I'm not sure whether I blew it, passed the test, or just got scammed.

It's mid-afternoon. I'm sitting out on the patio behind our cottage with a book when I think I hear the tinkle of the little bell at the front door. George is a bit slow on the uptake, but he starts to bark, so I assume there's someone there. I tear myself away from my reading (I'm catching up with Martin Cruz Smith, of Gorky Park fame; Red Square has me hooked, and it's quite a trek from winter at the Kremlin to the front door of our cottage in Laguna Beach,) and find a young black man, neatly dressed in white shirt and khaki slacks, greeting me with a big smile on his face...

This is Maxwell. Well, you just know he has to be selling something. He starts by selling his own story. a journey from the mean streets of Oakland, through addiction and jail time in San Quentin, to the self-help program in which he's now engaged. He tells it effortlessly, with great charm, without even a hint of self-pity; and he invites me, graciously enough, to compare it with my own tale of... well, middle class privilege. He speaks beautifully--no ebonics!--and has an engaging personality. My initial resistance yields to lending a grudging ear and, soon, to unconditional surrender.

I have enough gumption left, after a few minutes listening to his spiel, to ask what it is he's selling. Whatever it is, he has mastered the car salesman's--and the magician's--art of distraction. It's as though he's doing me a favor by engaging my philanthropy. But when he finally gets around to pulling the sales pad from his back pocket--where it has been carefully concealed--it turns out that he's selling magazines. I should have known. Actually, I did know, by this time I was expecting it. For a charitable cause, of course: the Ronald MacDonald house in Santa Ana, where needy women and children find refuge from the cruel circumstances that many of the poor are compelled to face out on the streets. Incidentally, the more magazines he sells, the more points Maxwell earns toward a program for his own betterment in life.

So of course I'm sold. It's not only my guilt that kicks in--though there's certainly an element of that involved in this transaction--there's also a genuine admiration for my visitor's skills and for his effort to put them to good use. He has managed to overcome much of my instinctive mistrust of the salesman (it was e.e.cummings, was it not, who wrote, unkindly, "a salesman is an it that stinks, excuse me"...?) and worked his way past all my other defenses. He has earned his keep.

He shows me, now, a list of magazine subscriptions to choose from and invites me to pick out three, or five, or six. I choose three, circumspectly. He offers me a choice of two-year, three-year, multi-year subscriptions. I choose the two-year option. I'm beginning to calculate, now, how much this is going to cost me, and I'm figuring, well, maybe fifty dollars. Then I notice that he's writing down on his sales pad, for one of my choices, what looks like $230. Whoa, I say! Hold on! I do plenty of giving in other ways, I'm not up for that kind of money. He scratches out the expensive choice without grumbling, and tots up the other two. It's still more than I intended--and a whole lot more than the two dollars I saved myself last week!--but my defenses are all worn down by this time and I append my signature on the appropriate line.

My new friend Maxwell is now set to leave and offers me his hand. I tell him to wait for a moment and return to the door with a copy of my book, Persist. He has earned that, too.

Here's the thing. Generosity is supposed to make you feel good. It does, when the generosity is altruistic. I felt generous in giving away a copy of my book. That was unasked for, spontaneous. I did not feel generous about any of the rest, with so much quid pro quo between me and the supposed end-recipient of my "generosity," the Ronald MacDonald House. So I resumed my seat in my back patio, after Maxwell left, still unsure as to whether or not I had been generous, or just expertly scammed. I would have wanted to feel the warm inner glow that rewards an act of generosity. Instead, I sat there simply feeling foolish and exploited, like an easy mark.


mandt said...

Even if you were scammed, your compassion and impulse is flawless! Hucksters, frauds and assorted cons always use our ideals against us. It's the nature of the Big Lie. peace, m

robin andrea said...

Sometimes I think it's just easier to make a donation directly to Ronald McDonald House. I'm never sure that the salesman at the door is really representing who he says he is representing.

Nancy Youdelman said...

Dear Peter,
Your heart is in the right place but I am fairly certain that you have been scammed. Here is a link from the Better Business Bureau:


PeterAtLarge said...

Thank you, Nancy! I checked it out, and used my "cooling off period" cancellation privilege.