It’s late at night. The Bistro’s closed. The busgirls are putting up the chairs. The kitchen crew’s mopping the floors. I’m in the back counting the evening’s take. There isn’t much to count. The few customers we had were frugal eaters and bad tippers. It was not a profitable night. Everyone’s anxious to go home.
The door chimes. I look up. A large disheveled looking man rushes inside the Bistro.
“Yo, I need help!” the man yells, looking wild eyed. “I need twenty dollars!”
I immediately tense up. I’m always worried some crackhead’s gonna rob us. Wearing soiled hospital scrubs and dirty sneakers this guy seems to fit the profile.
“What do you need twenty dollars for?” I reply calmly.
“Sir,” the man says, stopping in front of me. “I’m a drug addict. I just got out of rehab.”
“Ok. So why do you need twenty bucks?”
Disheveled Guy reaches into a plastic bag and pulls out several crumpled pieces of paper.
“You see here sir,” he says. “These are my discharge papers from the hospital. I’m telling you the truth sir.”
A powerful smell hits my nostrils. It’s a combination of sour body odor and cheap booze. This guy’s lying to me already. If he just got out of rehab he’d have taken a shower this morning. I used to work in a rehab.
“I’m from Michigan sir,” Disheveled Guy continues, pulling his wallet out of the bag. “You see here. This is my license. I’m a long way from home sir. I need help. I need twenty bucks so I can take a bus to where I’m living.”
“Where do you live now?” I ask.
“Bloomfield New Jersey.”
“Really?” I reply. “I grew up near there. Where in Bloomfield do you live? Near Newark? East Orange? Nutley?”
Disheveled Guy stares at me for a moment. Then his face breaks into a big nervous smile.
“I need twenty bucks so I can go home sir. Yes sir. I’m in trouble sir. Got no one.”
I notice he’s staring at the money in my hands. I put the money in a lockbox, get up from my chair, and walk towards him.
“You’ve been drinking,” I say.
Disheveled Guy looks hurt. “Why yes sir,” he replies. “Some friends of mine bought me a few drinks.”
“Why couldn’t they help you get home?”
“Your friends,” I reply. “The ones who bought you drinks? Why didn’t they give you some money?”
Disheveled Guy stares at me and licks his lips. He wasn’t ready for the third degree. He’s used to people ignoring him or just giving him money to go away. I’m forcing him to use his brain. Maybe I’m being a bit of a prick but it’s an attitude born from experience.
Years ago, when I was a young seminarian, I was posted to an inner city parish for the summer. Druggies, hookers, petty criminals, and the mentally ill were always banging on the rectory door looking for handouts. Being young and idealistic I was a soft touch. Soon every grifter in the neighborhood knew the new guy at St. Florian’s was a pushover. Eventually the pastor pulled me aside for a little talk. He commended my generous spirit but gave me some advice I never forgot. “Never let them lie to you,” he said. “Because they’ll lose all respect for you. That’ll just make your job even harder.”
I stare at the unwashed person in front of me. I know he’s lying. He wants money so he can get high. But this is a restaurant not a rectory. I need to get him out of here. I reach into my pocket and pull my nights earnings out of my pocket – a twenty dollar bill and a five. I think for a moment, put the twenty back in my pocket, and hand the man the five.
“But I need twenty,” Disheveled Guy says, looking annoyed.
“That’s what I can give you,” I say.
Disheveled Guy takes the money out of my hand and walks away without saying thank you. Oh well. Charity is its own reward. But just to be on the safe side I lock the door behind him anyway.
After a while it’s time to go home. As I start walking the down the street I feel my stomach grumble. I head inside the pizza joint across the street for a quick slice. As I’m waiting I notice Disheveled Guy’s there eating pizza. I feel a twinge of sadness and guilt. The man was hungry. What did the Gospel say? When I was hungry you fed me? When I was naked you clothed me? I start adding up my karma and it comes up short. Maybe I should’ve given him the twenty.
I head back outside and eat my pizza. As the hot cheese burns the roof of my mouth I feel very grateful. Lots of people have nothing to eat. So what if I made no money tonight? I have hot food and a place to crash. More importantly I have friends and family who care about me.
But what if someone cracked me over the head, stole my money, and left me to wander the streets helpless and confused? Would any one be my Good Samaritan? Or would people look at me suspiciously and ignore me? Suddenly, despite the warm night air, I feel a shiver run down my spine. In this day and age I wouldn’t want to rely on the kindness of strangers. Hell, I’m not too kind when I’m the stranger. I head home with my thoughts and contradictions.
A couple of days later I’m standing outside the Bistro. Disheveled Guy’s back and panhandling a young woman waiting to cross the street. This time he’s wearing a cheap new shirt and pants. Still carrying his possessions in a plastic bag, he asks the woman for twenty bucks so he can get back to Jersey.
“Leave me alone,” the woman says, walking away.
“Thanks a lot bitch,” Disheveled Guy hisses, throwing up his hands. This guy’s part of the reason why charity can be so complicated.
“Still trying to get back to Bloomfield?” I call out.
Disheveled Guy turns around and looks at me. If he recognizes me he shows no sign.
“Stop harassing people in front of my restaurant or I’m calling the cops,” I say.
“Fuck you,” the Disheveled Guy replies.
“Beat it,” I say. “Don’t let me see you around here again.”
Disheveled Guy stares at me. He’s pissed. I don’t blame him. I’d hate to be in his shoes. After a hostile moment he turns around and walks away.
Now, I take no pleasure getting tough with someone so damaged. But sometimes in life you have to throw a few elbows. I know that’s not fair or pretty – it just is. Street people know I’ll give out food and the occasional bill. But they also know not to start shit in front of my restaurant. I don’t want my job getting any harder.
Ok. So I’m not exactly the Good Samaritan.
But I’m doing the best I can.