I am sitting on a bench outside the grocery store in downtown Laguna Beach with George, the dog. We are waiting patiently for Ellie to finish with her shopping and rejoin us. A man approaches, clearly Latino, kind of unwashed but not severely so, and offers his hand. “Good morning, my friend,” he says with a big, friendly Latino smile. And adds, “Could you give me two dollars to buy something to eat?” He points to his mouth to ensure that I’ve understood.
Two dollars. It’s been a good long while since the days of “Brother, can you spare a dime?”
I guess that, given an adjustment for inflation, it was not an unreasonable request. But my knee-jerk reaction was the familiar one: self-protection mixed with more than a little spontaneous and self-righteous judgment. “Begging” is not approved behavior in the little universe I have created for myself. Besides, I was importuned. If the man was hungry, it was somehow his fault, not mine. Compassion, I regret to say, did not for one moment cross my mind—or enter my heart. Nor did any one of my professed social and political beliefs about the injustices we mete out to the poor and underprivileged. Had I parted with two dollars, it would not have made the slightest difference to my own well-being, and I had them in the wallet in my pocket.
Still, I chose to lie. Immediately, and without a single thought—especially none of those in the preceding paragraph. I said, “I’m really sorry”—without really being the least bit sorry—“but my wife has all my money and she’s in the grocery store.”
My new friend walked away, and left me to think more about the wallet in my pocket and the two dollars tucked away there with the rest of the bills. It was a small act of cowardice and honesty, as the scale of such things goes, but it served to remind me, uncomfortably, of qualities that I do not find admirable in myself. Namely, for one, hypocrisy. I do not practice what I preach, and quite easily find justification for the failure.
Namely, too, that little bit of cowardice that fails to take responsibility for a choice. It was after all my choice not to give the man the money that he asked for, but I managed in a subtle way to pass on the responsibility for it to my wife: she, I told him, had the wallet.
A little white lie? Yes, I suppose. It spared me embarrassment and allowed me to be parsimonious, all at once. It would have been unnecessary, perhaps, and a sad reflection on myself to tell the truth: “I don’t care enough about you to want to help you.” It would have been harsh to take the principled stand—“Get a job”—at a time where there are no jobs to be had. My choice, to tell the lie, spared me the awkward necessity of having to tell the truth, let alone admit it to myself.
What, I ask myself in retrospect, would have been the skillful action—the one that would have left me with the feeling that I had done something good for another person and, not incidentally, for myself? Had I given him the two dollars, would I then be encouraging vagrancy? I remember a friend, a young woman, an artist who worked in a cheap studio area in downtown Los Angeles, where numerous down-and-outers inhabit the streets. This young woman was herself struggling financially to make ends meets, but she never left her studio without a small bundle of dollar bills close to hand, to help out those less fortunate than herself. She made no judgment as to their relative need, or what she thought they might spend it on—cheap wine or food; when asked, she gave.
I’m glad to have remembered Cindy at just this moment. Another fine teacher. Wherever you look there they are. My Latino friend was my teacher for this morning. I’m just sad that I was too ungenerous to have been able to reward him in some small way for what he had to reveal to me about myself.