I know most of my posts are book related, but sometimes I need to write out a conundrum I am having in the hopes it might lead me to clarity.
A couple days ago, my husband and I went to a laundry mat, which is something we typically don’t do but our townhouse’s communal laundry area was out of order. So we go, and it was a laundry mat we hadn’t been to before but it’s a little closer to home than the others. It was in a pretty rundown building—no biggie. The lighting inside wasn’t very good, and the place looked decayed—as long as the washers and dryers work, that’s fine.
Then a woman approached us while we were waiting for our laundry to finish washing, and she says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have enough quarters to finish drying my clothes. Could you spare a couple?”
I pause, as the main reason I am hesitant is only because I am trying to figure out if I have any quarters to spare and still finish my own laundry—but I figure, if I run out, I do still have a couple bucks I could use for change. So I take out $2 worth of quarters, enough for a proper 45 minute drying cycle, and give them to the woman.
I didn’t keep an eye on her, but I assume the quarters were used for laundry as the woman didn’t immediately walk out of the laundry mat and she did, indeed, have clothes to dry.
So why did I actually feel bad about having done a nice thing for a stranger?
This has been an issue I have been trying to figure out for a while. This is not the first time I have been asked for change by a stranger, and every time it happens I get an instant twisted feeling in my gut. It’s not that I don’t want to help; I usually jump at the chance to help someone who needs a hand. Which is why it bothers me so much that it actually bothers me to spare a dollar or two to someone who may genuinely need it.
But the more I try to remember when I started feeling this way, it reminds me of the few times I lent change to someone who turned out NOT to need it—like the woman on the street who said she was lost and didn’t have enough money for a taxi, so just wanted a couple bucks to get home. So I gladly spare the five dollars, only to ten minutes later walk into a convenience store…to see the exact same women buying toiletries with the money I gave her.
Okay, maybe she needed pads or something important and really didn’t have the money to buy them. Why not just tell me that? You need pads? I’ll buy you a pack of pads. I don’t like being caught without them either. But what made me mad, more so than anything, was the feeling that I had been lied to. I had been conned.
Or the time I mistakenly thought I could just walk into a bus station (by myself, foolish me) and not be accosted by ten men all begging for money. If I were a wealthy person, or if I knew where the closest homeless shelter/soup kitchen was, I would help everyone I could. But when I gave one of the men a couple dollars, and then he comes back and accuses me of giving someone else more than I gave him so he should get more too (which, of course, I did not)…CONNED.
So now, it’s the knee-jerk reaction. No, $2 will not be able to allow someone to buy alcohol or drugs, and once it’s out of my hands, it really isn’t up to me what that person does with it. But it’s the automatic feeling that somehow, someway, I am being deceived, I am being lied to and treated like a sucker. It’s the feeling that I want to be a good person, that person that later on that someone who needed the spare change would think, “I would have had a horrible day if not for that one woman who was kind enough to give me help,” but instead I’m being thought of as a naïve schmuck that can be taken advantage of.
So I try to shrug it off. I mean, for every person conning for money, there are those honest folks who truly wouldn’t ask unless they needed it. When at 7:00 the laundry mat staff provided dinner of hot dogs and burgers for the homeless (as they do every couple nights a week), the people there even offered for my husband and I to join them for the dinner they were having. Even though I’m sure they knew we were not homeless, they invited us to join them anyway. And while I am touched by that, in a way, it made me feel even guiltier that I have been ingrained with the knee-jerk reaction—these were decent people that truly do need a helping hand, and even extended a hand to us even though we don’t need it.
And here I was, agitated over a few measly quarters.
I’m just not sure how to undo the skepticism and the distrust anymore. I can always do community service or volunteer work to make sure that for every good deed I do, it’s truly helping people. I wish I could just go back to being someone who could perform a kind act without having to second guess myself, who could feel good by doing good.