Friday, April 23, 2010

Brother, can you spare a dime?

I've spent my adult life anguishing over what to do when someone asks me for spare change.

In high school a young social activist suggested I just offer to buy the bum (my words, not hers) a cup of coffee instead of giving money that he'd probably use to get alcohol or drugs. It was a great idea except that I wasn't inclined then (and am even less so now) to share a cup of coffee with someone I didn't know. I'm bad at making small talk, unless you want to hear about cats.

I later held that if what the bum really wants is to get loaded and that's what will make him happy, then let's do away with the whole cup-of-coffee charade and help him on his way. I'm no social worker, I thought, so who cares if the money I give makes his life worse in the long-run, just as long as it makes him happy now. I always respected the bum who told me outright he needed money to get beer. Still, it didn't seem right contributing to their delinquency.

Then one day I heard the theory that people begging for money were actually angels in disguise and my willingness to give would be noted by said angel and the cumulative total of my deeds would be addressed at St. Peter's Gate. Now that prompted me to give! They asked for change, I gave them a percentage of that night's tips, and I did it with a smile. Even though I doubted the existence of God back then, I was smart enough to cover some of my bases, just in case I was wrong. The problem, of course, was that it was Boulder and there was a bum on every corner. Some of those homeless souls were quite young, and it was then that I learned that many of the "homeless" were just lazy-asses who could make more money begging for money than actually earning it. Simultaneously, I began to think that surely not every legitimate bum could be an angel, and seeing how I couldn't afford to give money to each one that asked in the hope that one would be an angel and I'd get a good mark, I cut back on my alms giving. I decided it was a sleazy way for God to judge me and I stopped my giving despite the fear of eternal damnation.

I later found myself in Eugene, OR. Eugene used to be where Gateful Dead groupies stayed until the next tour, a town inundated with white, dreadlocked, pot-smoking bums with no further ambition in life than to mooch off of society as long as possible. Lacking a firm spare-change philosophy to guide me, I was a prime target. Every 7-11 I went to, every trip to the grocery store brought me in contact with perfectly healthy young men and women who accosted me and demanded I give them some of the money I'd made that day cooking french fries and flipping burgers at Red Robin and serving dinner at an assisted living home. If I told them to get a job, they replied that they wouldn't work for The Man (I guess that's me) and they wanted to remain free to live life on their own terms. I made just enough money in those days to pay rent, stay current on my student loans, and to buy my own weed and beer. I gave them nothing but contempt.

Austin wasn't much better, especially since being a slacker was in vogue when I got there, but by then I'd lost almost all sense of charity towards the real and supposed homeless. I did once buy cat food for a young woman who actually wanted to get her cat some food but didn't have the money. I reached over and gave the cashier $5.00. For once, I witnessed genuine appreciation...from the cat. In Austin I would formulate a spiritual philosophy that didn't involve angels, pearly gates or circles of Hell, and my social awareness moved from the plight of people to that of animals. I cast aside all presumptions of being my brother's keeper and decided to let him fend for himself. But I still voted Democrat. That was over ten years ago.

Enter the other day when I stopped at a street corner where a woman stood with the ubiquitous cardboard "Homeless and hungry. God bless!" sign. Though more critical of society than I once was, I am socially softer than before, and I looked at her and then my spare change. Time was of the essence for soon the light would change. She walked down the shoulder and stopped just ahead of my car, looked at me and gave a plaintive wave. She was older than the other woman who haunts that corner, gray-haired. My mind raced.

She's faking it.
Maybe, but she's older.
The lottery is tonight and if I give something to her now then karma might reward me later.
I don't need that change, just give it to her.
I wish she'd quit looking at me.
I am not responsible for her.
Ask the guy in the Escalade.
No, I will not fall for the sad eyes.
C'mon light, turn green.

The light turned green and I left her to solicit change from someone else. Yet even before completing the turn I felt guilty for not having given her something. I was mad at myself for not only not giving but for also feeling guilty about not giving. I guess I should be happy that I haven't gone completely over to the dark side and I feel compelled to help. I want to help those who truly need help, not those unwilling to help themselves. I don't want my generosity to be taken advantage of or to be taken for granted.

Yeah, I can spare a dime; I'm just not sure if I should.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


It appears yet another segment of society is (yawn) feeling victimized. Some airlines are raising fees again and this is causing many travelers to feel a bit put out; in fact, it's being described more as "outrage." Although born with a champagne appetite, I live on a beer income, and so I, too, don't like the idea of paying any more money than I have to in order to fly. However, I have to side with the airlines on this one.

I'm sorry to break this to the outraged but travel and especially air travel is not a right, human or God-given. It is not enshrined in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights that you have a right to travel by air as cheaply as is convenient for you. Airlines, on the other hand, have a right as designated by our capitalist society to make money. Their goal is the same as any for-profit company, large or small, global or local: profit. Just because they provide a service that we feel we can't do without doesn't mean they don't have the right to charge more money whenever they want for that service. Many restaurants (rightly) charged for water during Georgia's drought but I don't recall hearing about any outraged diners. Movie theaters nationwide charge more for admission to 3-D movies and yet there was no end to the lines to get into see "Avatar." Where was the outrage when the US Postal Service raised the price of stamps? If businesses like restaurants, movie theaters and the USPS can impose fees to make more money without a lick of consumer outrage, then why the fuss when airlines do it?

The only way this particular bit of traveler outrage can be justified is if the airlines were nationalized because then we, the people, would own a sense...and it wouldn't make sense to be charging ourselves extra fees. Of course, the government could step in and establish some sort of price ceiling or limits on certain fees. But that would be Socialism, wouldn't it, and if Americans think that government-run health care is Socialism and thus un-American, then, well, I'm sure they wouldn't want the government having anything to do with lowering the costs of flying home for Christmas (especially since Socialism is apparently "godless").

There are other means of transportation open to travelers. Buses go all over the country and provide ample opportunity to get close to your fellow Americans. Trains have sleeping, dining and viewing cars for your pleasure. The automobile can get you anywhere in the US that a airplane can go and more. Wait...what's that? You say those other means of travel aren't convenient? Oh, oh...I see. Well, I guess flying is like shopping at 7-11 or Circle K: you pay more for the convenience.

If you want to enjoys the fruits of capitalism (and you know you do!), then you have to pay for it. So, buck up airline travelers and keep your unfounded outrage to yourselves.