A subway ride in New York is fairly predictable. But occasionally something out of the ordinary happens, though predictable in its own way. A performer will turn the aisle into his stage then pass around a hat. A beggar will appear, loudly announce his or her story, solicit compassion, then end with “God blessing” us all. These are awkward moments. Most people pretend as though nothing is happening, whether it’s a performance or a story, if there’s even a difference.
This week, one such interruption stuck with me. A relatively young man with a crippled arm, a bad leg, but a clear voice that filled the subway car announced he was a war veteran in need of help. To establish credibility, he gave us his branch of service, the number they assigned him, where he had fought, and too many details about the bullet wound in his ankle, which he offered to show us. (No one showed any curiosity.) That transitioned into the tale of his miserable condition, including the financial trials he faces with his wife and children, and the failures of Veterans Affairs to serve his legitimate needs. He then walked up and down the car to receive any contributions he might have moved people to offer. Not much, it seemed.
People sat silently, looking away. But they’re not cold to suffering. Americans are generous people and concerned about one another’s well being. So why rebuff this pitiable fellow? And a veteran yet! In some, I could see resentment that this man would cast himself as a vet to improve his return on confined space begging. But what if he is who he claims to be? Where then is his wider family, his community? Where indeed is the government? We spend so much money on such foolishness, why can we not take complete care of our wounded warriors?
The man beside me raised a dollar to catch the storyteller’s eye. He, too, was a vet, a Marine. He asked the man his rank (sergeant), how many years he had served (14), and some practical questions. He gave his phone number and told him he knew people who could help. Later I asked him if he thought the man with the sad story was the real thing. He wasn’t sure. Fourteen years was a long time only to make sergeant. Getting a call from him would decide the matter.
We want to help people, but we don’t want to be conned. Wherever there are kind and generous people ready and willing to help the suffering, there will be unscrupulous people pretending to suffer. Yes, if you love, you will get burned, and every giver will be swindled. The more generous our giving, the more swindlers will appear. And yet, love we must. So we give personally within our circles of trust and responsibility, and expand our circles as we can. Beyond that, we fund capable institutions with compassionate missions and refer the needy to their discerning care. The captivity of a subway car is an unlikely place to find an honest appeal.