March 23, 2006

What Should I Have Done?

I was walking to the Metro station after work when a woman approached me. She was wearing a long camel-colored coat and carried a dark red bag.

Woman: Excuse me! Do you work over there? [Points to my office building.]

Me: Yes, I do.

Woman: Oh good. I just...I was just wondering if you could help me out. You see, I just moved to the area a few weeks ago. My mother is out-of-town and she let me borrow her car while she's gone, but I got into a car accident this afternoon. Yes, just a few blocks away.

Me: Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that.

Woman: No, it's all right. A German lady hit me and now my car is totalled. And I have no way of getting down to Leesburg [a town in Virginia about an hour south of DC]. That's where I live, you see, and I need to pick the kids up from the babysitter's.

Me: I'm sorry, but I don't have a car.

Woman: Oh, I didn't mean that! I talked to the police and they told me they couldn't give me a ride that far south. And oh, do you think you could help me out?

Me: I'm sorry...

Woman: There's a taxi-cab over there and he told me he can take me down to Leesburg for half-price. Could you help me out? Please?

Me: I don't have any cash on me.

Woman: There's an ATM right around the corner. You know, I work. I could pay you back tomorrow. I just need a ride.

Me: I'm sorry, but there an appointment I have to get to...

We parted ways and I was left feeling unsure about what I should have done. The entire time we talked I felt very uneasy. She kept touching my shoulder and telling me about all of the problems she faced earlier in the day---and I wasn't sure if I believed her. What made me uncomfortable the most was when she told me about a taxicab around the corner and I couldn't see any down the street. And what unsettled me further is that she was so quick to point out the location of the nearest ATM. I wonder if I had drawn money out for her---would she have asked for $40? Or $100?

Yet I also felt guilty. As a Mormon, I've been taught to "judge not" and to serve all people. Yet as a city-dweller, I also have to be careful. So did my actions demonstrate my callousness or my street-smarts? Did I do the right thing? I don't know...

I think since I felt uneasy from the start, I did what I thought was best at the moment. And when I got home, I wondered if there really was no other means for her to get home besides asking a perfect stranger on the street for money. Surely the police could have referred her to someone who could have taken her home? Weren't there be buses that went down to Leesburg? And if she did indeed have a job, shouldn't she have some cash at hand?

But then again, should I just have given her the money instead of judging her motivations? Perhaps she was telling the truth after all...


  1. I've been in the same situation many, many times, and I still feel no wiser about what to do. I've given money, bought lunch, handed over my lunch, handed over my coat, and once, was gradually conned out of all the cash I had on me. I've been sworn at and god-blessed. I've befriended a couple of guys who lived on the street--this was the best, because I had relationships instead of awkward encounters.

    I still struggle with what to do every time I have an experience similar to the one you described. But maybe it's a good thing that we have to struggle with it, and that we don't always respond a particular way?

    I love your blog, btw--Darfur, Britney, Rodney Smith and Big Love, all on one page--and envy your adventurous existence (in a museum! in DC!).

  2. I just read over my comment and it sounds like I'm always generous in these encounters. The sad truth is that most of the time I do judge and mistrust those petitioning me, and avoid eye contact or give some lame excuse. The list above is just the exceptional cases.

  3. I think you did the right thing Mocaro. The encounter sounded a bit strange to me and made me a little uneasy. Maybe she just wanted some money, maybe she wanted more...who knows what she was up to. I guess I'm a bit cynical when it comes to trusting perfect strangers on the street with strange stories...

    I'm just glad you're ok. I'll see you in a week and a half. YAY!

  4. yo. what it is? Um, that's a tough question. I always feel guilty when I don't help people like that. There's that age-old problem that people always bring up about whether or not you should give money to pan-handlers who will "undoubtedly" use it for booze. I read a talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer that helped me out immensely. He said that he decided a long time ago that he would just take everyone at face value - and let the Lord sort the rest out. Obviously he wasn't arguing for a total abandonment of healthy skepticism in order to protect oneself, but, I think we could all do a bit more of giving others the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to pan-handlers, I figure that if they're out there begging for money - they're in a pretty terrible position already - and who am I to judge how they got there, or what they'll do with the money they get? So, I never allow myself to wonder what they'll do with it - or if they're lying or not. If I have some money I can spare, I try to give it. Most of the time I don't have any cash, however, in which case I just feel guilty and sad for them and move on. As for your situation -- I would probably have done the same thing as you. You never know what someone will do, especially if they ask you to go somewhere with them to get money out of an ATM. I figure the Holy Ghost is the best judge of those things - and there probably was a reason why you felt uneasy. So, I hope you don't feel too bad. That's my two cents on the matter (sorry it's so long).

  5. So Travis how do you reconcile that there are signs posted downtown Salt Lake City at Temple Square saying not to give money to pan handlers? ;) (I think the idea is that you should be charitable but that there are better ways to do it).

    As far as your situation, Caroline... I think you're fine. It sounds kinda suspicious to me too, anyone who could pay you back tomorrow could just as easily use the ATM themselves. I actually heard a talk given in church not long ago about a subject like this. The guy speaking basically said he relied on the spirit and handled each such situation on a case by case basis... he relayed a story of actually helping someone that wasn't just out to get money for booze, but that there were other times when he just wasn't prompted to help the person. I guess in that regard God *was* sorting them out for him (to Travis' point).

    Above all you followed your gut. Try not to feel guilty.

  6. Hey Everyone!

    Thanks for your comments! I think I feel better equipped if such an event happens to me again. Maybe I could help out the woman in other find a bus route for her to get home or something like that. And if I feel like it's the right thing to do, I could give her some cash.

    And John, I wanted to tell you that I love your blog! I heard about it after reading one of your essays in Sunstone. I've really enjoyed reading about your spiritual journey and I'm excited to hear more. I told a friend from high school about your spiritual "experiment" and she suggested that you should visit the Unitarian Universalists. It's a fascinating faith. Anyhow, keep posting!