Sunday, July 12, 2015

Angels Unaware

Yesterday, I stiffed Jesus. And I maybe, possibly, was the victim of a con artist. Both of these things may be true.

I had gone up to New York for a couple of days to see people who were in town for Thrillerfest, the annual gathering of the International Thriller Writers. It was a good time, but a lot of travel for a relatively quick visit. New York was hot and crowded and I have lost another small chunk of my field of vision, so just getting around the city is tenser than it used to be: I walk in front of people, I can't see people who are right in front of me (hi, Mark!), and that kind of concentrated socializing is exhausting when I'm used to spending days alone in front of a computer.

So when I got off the bus last night in Arlington, trudging into the Rosslyn Metro for the last leg home, I was tired and cranky and even a little bus-sick. A large woman about my age, dressed nicely with some dramatic eyeliner, was sitting with a cane right outside the Metro entrance.

"Excuse me," she said. "Do you live here? Are you from here?"

"Yes," I said.

"Can you talk to me for a minute?" she asked, so I stopped.

On the verge of tears, she told me a long and complicated story I had trouble following. She had gotten into a car accident that morning; she had gone to work, on a Saturday, at a Department of Commerce office in north Arlington. She had recently moved to this area from Atlanta, and was living with her mother in St. Charles, MD, a town so far from DC that I might not even call it an exurb. The bus to St. Charles wasn't running on the weekend, she said, and she was stranded. She needed $89 and change, an oddly specific number, to get a cab driver to take her home. She didn't have access to her bank account, which was in Atlanta. She had bone cancer, she said, which was why she had the cane.

I had a dollar in my wallet. I told her so. "There's an ATM right in there," she said. "I'll pay you back."

I remembered a time I had been stranded at an airport at the end of a trip, without enough money to get my car out of airport parking. My parents had bailed me out that time, and the manager of the airport hotel had let me eat at the breakfast buffet while I waited for the money to hit my account.

"I can give you $40," I said.

She walked with me to the ATM, and I took out $60 — that's what the ATM quick-withdrawal option dispenses, so I just hit that button. I gave it to her with my business card, and she said she'd pay me back. I wished her luck and went down the escalator to catch my own train. She had told me her name, but I can't remember it.

This morning, I wish I could. I wonder whether and how she got home. And I wonder why I didn't just give her $100. I could have. It's not money I can easily spare; a freelancer's life is a constant scramble, and this is the first year in 15 years of self-employment that I have any breathing room at all.

But, but, but. Jesus talked in parables, but on this question, he was absolutely clear. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." 

It's actually none of my business whether this woman was truly in need, or a scam artist. She presented herself to me as someone in distress, someone in need. She asked me, personally, for help. It was in my power to help her and I did it halfway. 

I don't feel great about this. I want to be the person who would rather get ripped off than turn her back on someone in trouble. I have tunnel vision in more ways than one, and I don't always see when the people closest to me need help and can't or won't ask. I'm going to be thinking about this encounter for a long time, and wondering what a whole-hearted response to that woman would have been. 

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