Convenience Store Apostolate

As I was walking home from Mass on the second Sunday in Lent, a woman jumped into my path, thrust a stack of CDs in my face, and offered me my pick in exchange for five bucks.

YouTube having effectively reduced CDs to charmless art objects, I didn’t bother looking. But I did remember a meme I’d seen on my FB newsfeed earlier that day, which went something like “The three disciplines of Lent: Fasting, study and almsgiving!” Simple, unclever messages must hold a special power over me, or I’d ignore many more stop signs. After telling the woman to wait, I bought a pack of gum from 7-11, asked for $5.00 cash back, gave it to her, and continued on my way.

Maybe it’s just me, but the very word alms sounds terribly out of place these days. Let the partisan brawl begin: conservatives will thunder that Big Government has made almsgiving superfluous. Liberals will holler back about our Calvinistic ambient culture, where almsgiving looks as sentimental and as dangerous as handing out Twizzlers to grizzly bears at national parks. Well, having wasted years of my life in jobs that involved canvassing or cold-calling, both of which seemed only a few OSHA regs this side of panhandling, I’ve learned to see begging as a form of self-employment. Success demands persistence and initiatve, the shrewdness to tell a soft touch from a hardnose.

No less than a pitch, every plea is a performance. In Phoenix, the average beggar’s spiel boils down to an explanation — for example, “Bro, I need bus fare to get back to my old lady in Gallup.” In older, more compact urban areas, where the competition is stiffer and the audience perhaps more jaded, panhandlers don’t make excuses; they make impressions. One Christmas morning, on the A train somewhere around Columbus Circle, a quartet of apparent homeless sang “White Christmas” in very creditable, Platters-style harmony before passing the cup. On the Moscow Metro, a boy-and-girl Roma team knelt before me, folded their hands as if in prayer, and planted their heads in my lap. Whether they were making a supplicating gesture or a veiled threat — “Donate or be arrested for a sick sonofabitch” — I didn’t wait to find out. Instead, I duked them 20,000 rubles, silently praising their moxie.

Back to the lady and her CDs. Something about that quick and easy transfer of benevolence inspired me. At least through Lent, I decided, I’d make a point of supporting the panhandling industry. But here’s something about panhandlers that might surprise most people: like cops, they’re never around when you want one. To realize my project, I had to become the aggressor, staking out the Circle K and 7-11 that flank my apartment complex. Whenever someone approached me with a petitioning look in his eyes, I’d seize the initative by asking, “Do you need anything?”

The open-endedness of the question must have come from some researcher’s instinct, because the responses taught me a lot. Nobody asked for the moon. In fact, most people didn’t even ask for cash. Maybe the proximity of consumer goods constricts people’s imaginations, but nearly everyone asked for something that could be found on the shelves inside. Coffee was a steady crowd-pleaser, so were bear claws. Some people who saw me smoking asked for a cigarette, but — probably knowing how expensive they’ve become — nobody tried for a whole pack. Once, in an especially expansive mood, I did hand over a box containing 18 Pall Mall 100s (I’d smoked two already). The recipient asked, “Are you sure?” at least three times before accepting.

One guy did ask for money, but he specified a modest amount, and itemized it. “I need three bucks for gas,” he said. Cynical me, I took it for a line. Testing him, I said I’d have to pay with my debit card and asked which pump he was using. “That one,” the man said without missing a beat, and pointed. I looked, and sure enough, there was a rusted heap of a car with the gas cap lying on the hood. Feeling like God’s original heel, I asked the cashier to authorize the pump for five dollars — three wouldn’t have bought even a gallon.

After a few of these heartwarming encounters, I decided to up the ante. Since my apartment complex lets units cheap, it’s become home to a few people on fixed incomes. One is a guy I’ll call Claude, a schizophrenic who lives on disability and usually has enough on the ball to take his meds. As a slight counterweight to the curse of mental illness, Claude was blessed with a gift for housekeeping. Last fall, I paid him $30 to clean my bedroom carpet, and considered it money well spent. This Lent, as a kind of sinecure, I offered him $60 to clean the rest of my apartment.

Claude didn’t recognize it as a sinecure; he saw it as a job. My apartment’s small — one bedroom, plus a combination kitchenette and living room and a walk-in closet — and it’s dingy rather than dirty. Still, three hours under Claude’s care transformed the place. The imitation hardwood floors shone, the fixtures and cabinets gleamed. Sensing my satisfaction, Claude asked permission to quit and resume work the following Monday. When he returned at the appointed time, he was smiling slyly.

“Listen,” he said. “I already worked three hours cleaning your house, including your dirty, dirty bathroom. I’m thinking I’ll need another $40 for the rest.”

“Okay,” I said. “I paid $60 in advance; you worked for three hours. That’s $20 per hour, which doesn’t seem too bad, does it?” I told him, truthfully, that I had only $20 to spare, but that if he worked for another hour, he could have it.

Claude began work on my walls, which were once off-white, but which nicotine has since streaked with amber. He used a broom dipped in some orange cleaning solution; given the relatively small surface area, he made rapid progress. After half an hour, he looked up, pointed toward the bedroom door, and said, “After I get to there, we’ll call it a day.” It was a statement, not a question. Absorbed in my work, I nodded. Ten minutes later, I heard him say, “Okay, buddy! All done!”

I looked at the clock on my computer tool bar. “But we agreed you’d work for an hour.”

In a twinkling, Claude reapplied his shit-eating grin. “Nuh-uh,” he said. “We agreed I’d clean up to your door, and I did. Pretty, huh?” He had me over a barrel. And besides, if I felt like arguing with crazy people, I’d figure out a way to be Mark Shea. “Pleasure doing business with you,” I snapped as he collected his rags and his bucket and marched out in triumph.

So I guess I’m wrapping up this Lent a little wiser. On short acquaintance, it’s easy enough to sentimentalize the deserving poor. True open-handedness turns people shy, awakens some sense of proportion that makes ambitious mooching feel base. As long as you’re playing Lord Bountiful, they’ll make it easy on you by being very sweet in return. But, good grief, try to strike a deal with one of them, and he’ll overpromise, overbill, haggle and underperform so cannily, you’ll think he was to the entrepreneurial manner born.

Monday Mourning Coming Down
Mike Huckabee, Pope Francis, and the Rise of Mother Manners
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Valentine’s Day: For Some, 50 Shades of Blue
  • GeekLady

    Some guy did that to me on the light rail once. If he’d just asked me for a couple of bucks, I’d have been happy to give them (for once I actually had cash on me)… But he asked me for change for three dollars and managed to walk away with my three dollars of change AND the three dollar bills he wanted changed, through just that sort of deceitful bluster.
    …It’s a devious sort of spiritual attack, it makes me immediately annoyed about having been willing to give anything at all.

  • Pearty

    I can’t stand those BS stories. I was stopped in my car near a supermarket recently and a guy came up in hysterics saying he needs money for a cab to get to the hospital as his mother’d had a heart attack. The hospital was 300km away. He was asking for more than that much in Australian Dollars. I was dumbstruck. I then called his bluff and offered my phone so he could call in the meantime to see if she was okay. He went silent. He said she had a silent number or some crap. I then offered to call the hospital. “Where was it again?” Silence. “Just please, you gotta help me man, please!!”

    I told him to get bent. If he had have just said, “Dude, I’m a junkie and need $20 for a hit” I’d probably have given it to him.

  • rob

    In a NJ Barnes and Noble parking lot, I had just got into my car when another one came alongside me and motioned me to open my window. A fast-talking African American guy gave me a story about how his EZ Pass toll gizmo had been rejected because there was something messed up with the checking or credit card account it was associated with. He needed $20 to get to Long Island. Plausible; certainly a new techie twist. I was willing to give him the money, when he added, “I know what you’re thinking. What’s this black dude doing here harassing this guy for?” Or something like that. Whereupon I said, “Doesn’t the Bible say, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’?” I dont like it when folks act as thought they can see in my head, even if they can. Anyway, he at least had NY plates on the car. So who knows.

  • Bridget N

    I respond much better to non-BS-filled requests for money than the “my car broke down and I need $20 for gas” sob stories, especially when said sob story is told to me by the same person on more than one occasion several days apart in the same parking lot. Honestly, if you’re going to be so blatantly dishonest, have a better memory and don’t approach the same person more than once! I have zero problem helping because I’ve needed help in the past, but I do have zero tolerance for bullsh*tters.

  • DWiss

    You touched a raw nerve with me, Max.

    I used to work in San Francisco where there is no difficulty at all in finding a homeless person who will take your money. It’s the homeless capital of the U.S., I think. Day after day I’d give a dollar to the same people standing in the same spots. It would cost me as much to walk from my office to the BART station as it would to ride the train (not cheap). One day it hit me: I’m not helping these people out of a tight spot, this is their profession. (I especially admired the marketing prowess of the ones that hung out in front of St. Mary’s church after noon Mass. Brilliant.) Also, I was suckered once or twice by some REAL pros who were running elaborate scams. Yes, I’m a sucker. I am the one P.T. Barnum was talking about.

    So now I keep my dollars and instead pray for the people who want me to give them money. Prayer is a pretty good gift, I think. I’m sure that I need more people to pray for me. There’s a little voice in my head that tells me I should get involved in the local food bank, and in a year or so when the last of my kids is in college and I have more time and less money I may actually do that. By the way, I credit the Holy Spirit for the voice because the alternative is an ugly one.

    Bottom line, and maybe I should save this for the confessional, I want to meet the guileless poor that Jesus met, whose need is so deep that any help at all is meaningful, and I don’t walk away feeling like a stupid jackass for having given away my hard-earned money for no good purpose. For saying that, God will probably send me to a purgatory wherein I have to beg spare Grace from my fellow purgatory dwellers before I can go to heaven. Serves me right.

  • df

    I enjoy reading what you write and how you write. Makes me think about things left subtly in the background of the text. That is a gift. Here, it is about the need to outgrow an immaturity that stifles the virtue of charity– as if being generous should somehow be tied to the graciousness or goodness of the recipient’s response. It is rather more a human and divine adventure in seed-throwing, and we know not what manner of wild growths will blossom back at us. The old woman in Chesterton’s poem who slapped King Alfred– generous King Alfred– for burning the bread-cakes did him a favor. It took him a while to realize it, though.

  • Christina

    I agree with df about the subtlety and richness of your thought and writing, Max, and had a similar response. What came to mind was the effect of unconditional love, which has no limitations, versus that of conditional love, which carries always a quid pro quo. In the face of “everything I have is yours” our awed response is humility and meekness. But the mundane charity of the sinecure evokes a cynical response in both giver and receiver that is born of our painful experience of the love-as-transaction offered by the world.

  • fats

    you have hit a topic i struggled with too. There are many , many street corner beggars here, and when i was stopped at a light, i used to think ( well, that one is a junkie for sure), and look for the ones that fit my understanding of what a genuine person in need is. Finally, after all that debate for months, it struck me that i dont have to decide who is and isnt worthy of my few bucks handed out, but it is up to God to be the steward of my Charity, not me. So if i have some money on me, and if someone asks, i try to just give it and leave it at that. Addicts and the deeply poor, are still in need of dignity, human contact, and Love. How they respond and what motivates them to ask is between them and God. Our Pope kissed the feet of an AIDS patient, I’m pretty sure he didnt debate how the person acquired the disease.

  • David Naas

    If you want to find the “real poor”, look at the person who is waiting you, the person behind the counter at Circle K wearing the mandatory company polo shirt over their tattered jeans, the one who needs food stamps to get their kids something worth eating.

    [I do, I do. If they had tip jars...]

  • Manny

    This was an excellent blog, one of your bests! Now you made me feel completely chintzy with my one dollar almsgiving. To be honest I really don’t know how to handle street pan handlers. I know they’re almost all lying, but behind the lies there’s some sad story as well. There’s this drunk I see relatively routine when I stop for coffee in the morning on my way to work. I know he’s been drinking all night and he asks for change to get a cup of coffee. I give him a buck here and there. But I can’t help feeling I’m just perpetuating his dysfuntional way of life. So when i give to pan handlers, am I actually helping or hurting them?