Do I have sucker on my forehead?

28 Feb

Today as I left Safeway, a homeless man was panhandling for change outside the entrance. “Any change?” he asked.

I gave him my standard answer, “Sorry –  I don’t carry cash.”

To his credit, he came back with, “Can you use your card to buy me breakfast?”

This response appealed to me for two reasons: First, I am wracked with guilt when I see homeless people. I’ve been fortunate to have a life in which I can take care of myself, and I try my best to pay it forward. Ignoring the request of a homeless person – when I can clearly afford to help – makes me feel like I’ve lost my grounding in humanity. Second, I coach salespeople and advise them to come back to any objection with another question to remain engaged. This guy was a MODEL closer who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Ergo, my guilt and his tenacity worked in his favor. “C’mon,” I told him. “I’ll buy you a few things.”

And with that, we walked back into Safeway, my hand secretly extracting my credit card from the wallet in my pocket so he wouldn’t see that I was liar, who was – in fact – carrying cash.

As we started down the dairy aisle, I realized that this was like trick-or-treating, and that if I didn’t establish ground rules he would clean the whole bucket out. “I’ll pick up three things for you,” I told him.

He strode purposefully to the hot dog section, then asked if I saw any half-smokes. “I don’t like hot dogs, but I do like half smokes. I don’t see any half smokes though, so I guess I’ll get this turkey.” He handed me a brick  of sliced turkey.

His next selection was a large bottle of water. (It struck me as odd since water is free, but if you don’t have a faucet,  I guess it’s a smart choice.)

His last item threw me for a loop. He grabbed an 18-pack of eggs and handed them to me. I wanted to ask how he was going to cook them. In a shelter? Over a sterno? Or would he eat them raw for the protein? And then I started think that perhaps I’d been hustled, that maybe this guy wasn’t homeless at all.

As we stood in line, I had my credit card out, ready to pay. He bounced around behind me, grabbing random items from the candy shelf, then sticking them back – either remembering that he had a three item limit, or realizing that he might blow his cover if he swapped in a KitKat in place of his turkey.

The cashier rang up the purchases and I swiped my card. The cashier shook his head at me, and I could tell he was irritated. Irritated that I was bringing a homeless man into the store? Irritated than I was yuppie sucker who didn’t recognize a hustle? Or irritated that he was squeaking out a living on minimum wage as a cashier while this guy stood around and asked for handouts?

For whatever, my act of charity felt a bit flat. I kept coming back to the eggs, thinking they were a sure sign that I’d been rolled.

As I walked home, I thought it through. Even if the guy wasn’t homeless, even if he had stove to cook those eggs on, he was clearly at some point of desperation I’ve never known. I’ve never stood outside a supermarket and asked someone to buy me groceries. Until I do, it doesn’t matter if the person who needs my charity is truly homeless or just running a racket: he’s missing something that I’m fortunate enough to have.

Framed in that context, I felt better about potentially having been hustled for 18 eggs.

Now I just wonder how he’s going to cook them. Poached? Scrambled? Boiled? Of course, I’m lobbying for sunny-side-up. How else would you expect an optimist to cook an egg?

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