what do you do when you don't want to assume but you have to act?
i saw him first, wondering if he was a statue, a mannequin, a bad joke taped to the top of a chair in the Fry's grocery store lawn furniture display. as i walked closer, trying not to stare in case he wasn't, he resolved into a real life man, aware of my gaze and looking back, across the color line i realize still exists in our country. i wondered if he was waiting for a ride, enjoying a cool drink on a 110 degree afternoon, or what--but didn't want to look enough to find out, as i didn't want him to think i was staring because he wasn't white--which is maybe much less of an issue this close to the border, where not many people are white. anyways, the throbbing pain of my recently extracted tooth drew me into the store, searching for liquid foods: a can of tomato soup and a box of butternut squash puree, to be exact.
later on, when throbbing-tooth-be-damned i didn't feel right just sitting in the hotel room i hadn't wanted to get anyway (my spot in the desert being much more fun, and about 100% cheaper), i walk to a drug store down the road for mouthwash--and walking out, there he was, a few paces down, leaning against a pillar, bicycle against the wall. this was a better time to greet him: i could have done the white-fear thing and tried to avoid passing him in an eye-contactable way, but that's not my thing: i'd like to be able to eye contact anyone, greet anyone. as i get closer, i see he has a fullish goatee, slightly-grown-out afro, is wearing an olive green shirt and some jeans. our eyes meet. and as i pass, his voice gentle, friendly, defeated, he says:
Can you spare anything?
can i spare anything?
i tell him i can't, really, our eyes still meeting--then spend the next thirty minutes or so wondering if i've lied.
it's not the first time i've thought about it: i got asked for money, for anything, multiple times a day in Uganda, often by people that seemed to have a pretty good case for needing it (and often by people i knew didn't). in the states, if i don't know the person's story, i usually limit myself to giving food, not money, because it doesn't convert as easily into alcohol, and everybody can use it. i have a soft spot for mothers with their babies, though: today i gave money to a few of these sitting on the sidewalk in the hot sun on the Mexican side of US border control. but this guy, here on the US side, i told him i couldn't really spare anything. then bought a used book for six bucks in the next store, drove my dad's Harley Davidson back to an air-conditioned motel room i'm spending 40$ a night on, wallet full of cash i had saved for dental work south of the border...
can i really not spare anything?
i think what i really want to ask is, how in a single moment do you separate the needy from the something-else, whether that something-else is needy-but-addicted, spanging-but-financially-okay, capable-of-work-but-used-to-spanging, needs-help-but-not-this-kind, etc. having the conversation that could lead me to separate these would take an impractical amount of time if i was to do it with everyone. in any case, tonight, the wad of cotton in my mouth and the throbbing tooth-hole from which it was soaking up blood effectively prevent that conversation from happening. and yet, i wonder if i lied.
the problem with giving or not giving money to people asking for it is that you're forced into a snap judgment based on little more than appearance. their bodily presence there, their commitment of time and acceptance of humility says something--but basically it comes down to how honest-and-desperate vs. shamming-for-other-reasons they look. and who can really know or decide that ? yet we have to act. should i have the power to define them? it's my money, something i have earned in one way or another (though for some people this merely means being born into a certain family and for most of us merely being born in a certain country), and their perogative to ask, so in a way, that is my power, at least in this instance. nevertheless, it's an uncomfortable one, when he asks if i can spare anything. literally, yes. in this context, repeated so often in a day, involving so many unknowns... no. i guess a well-fed looking guy in his 20s doesn't move me like a mama out there on the street with her baby. or maybe race played into this snap decision, and it's so ingrained in me that i don't even notice it. this is part of the reason i am so troubled by making these decisions--because they come down to appearance, and appearance often involves stereotypes we all know are not true. and yet, how much of our life is lived through snap judgments based on appearance? Which person to talk to at a party, which food to order on a menu, which news story to read online--though they're maybe not always weighty, and other knowledges play in to it, ultimately a lot of the time we are relying on senses and intuition, not logic, to guide our actions. and the rationalizations come later, if they need to.
so i decided i couldn't spare any change. but there is something i can always spare: respect.
just because someone's asking for money, or just because they're not dressed as nice, or come from a different country, or wear a different shade of skin than i do, doesn't determine anything about who they are. it can tell you what kind of environment they might have been raised in, what kind of social problems they're probably up against, but the last thing i want to do is give someone money out of pity. we're both people, and though i often forget it, at some other time in the future i could be the one spanging. maybe that was me sometime in the past. and if you believe society has something to do with poverty, or that people are fundamentally the same everywhere, then it IS us standing there.
so i dont give this guy my money. but i do give him the same touch of my time i'd give anyone else, because he is anyone else, he just happens to be spanging. we make eye contact, we exchange words, i try to show that though we are in different places in our lives, though i don't need to ask for money right now, that doesn't mean i think either of us are better or worse, more pitiable or praiseworthy. we're just people, needy in our different ways. i can't spange for a sense of home, so i do what i'm doing instead.
like it or not, we have to make snap judgments. that's life. but we don't have to keep all the imaginary, appearance-driven veiled stereotypes that might go into those judgments, don't need to let them gel into knowledge about that person, or whatever group we are putting them in. who knows how many black guys i've seen asking for change--lord knows i've seen a lot of white guys spanging in Boulder. this doesn't mean anything other than what it means in each individual case--because such judgments are based on far less than knowledge, because our own abilities to percieve and understand are limited, and because everyone can change. balancing all the uninformed decisions we have to make every day is respect for other people, in all their unknowable, complex and historied humanity. just like us. so i don't give this guy money, though i know from seeing him twice he's been on the street at least five hours. but i don't ignore him either, and i'd like to think that that little i could spare, that eye contact and those few words spoken to a fellow journeyer, they were enough.
 this is also a great place for race paranoia to come up--did i give money to the mothers in Mexico and not this guy outside of CVS because they were Latino and he was black? i think that's part of why these snap judgments can be so uncomfortable--because they are based on appearance, across a color line that often means race is one of the more obvious parts of that appearance. and there are racist rationalizations for giving or not giving, so how can you ever be sure?