It’s 6:15 on a Saturday morning, and I find myself — for reasons not worth explaining right now — driving east down Madison Avenue in Albany. I’m approaching a green light at the intersection with Ontario when a woman walks up to me, waving.
I slow down. Roll down the window. Assess her quickly. She’s 60, maybe a little older, in a knit cap and ratty parka. She’s weeping.
“Please, ma’am. Please.”
Watch out, I say. It’s a green light. Cars are behind me.
“Please. I’ve been homeless. Please, ma’am.”
OK. OK. Give me a sec. I’ll pull over.
“Please pull over. Please.”
Yes, I say. Yes. I’m pulling over.
And so, nicking through the last second of green, I pull over and grub around in my bag for a bill larger than a one. It is now 6:16, and the coffee I poured down my throat 20 minutes earlier has not kicked in.
The weeping lady materializes suddenly at my window and, startled, I seize the nearest green thing in my wallet. As I do, she tells her story: She got kicked out of something somewhere. She’s been homeless for a few days. She’s desperate. It’s awful. Please, ma’am. Please.
OK, I keep saying. OK. OK.
And as I hand over the green thing, I realize it’s a twenty. She realizes, too. This time both of us startle, and our eyes lock for a moment over the crumpled note in her small right fist.
“Thank you,” she says.
OK. Do me a favor, and pray for my three kids, I say.
“And can you pray for five kids I know who lost their mom?”
“I will. I will.”
I roll up the window and pull away, asking myself the usual question: Was I just scammed? I answer it in the usual way: Probably. And then, toodling down Madison before sunrise, I conclude with the usual exercise in sequential logic.
A) She was telling the truth, and I’m out twenty bucks. Or
B) She was lying, and I’m out twenty bucks.
If the answer is A), all is well. If the answer is B), then either:
A) She was lying, but she says a prayer for eight kids, and I’m out twenty bucks. Or
B) She was lying, and doesn’t say a prayer for eight kids, and I’m out twenty bucks.
If the answer is A), that’s still a good outcome. If the answer is B), then either:
A) She’s lying, and she doesn’t pray for eight kids, but she reflects on the questionable morality of fleecing a woman at a traffic stop at 6:15 a.m., and maybe resolves not to do it again, and maybe she sparks with empathy for the children she’s asked to pray for, and maybe, later, she has a small but significant change of heart. And I’m out twenty bucks. Or
B) She does none of the above, and I’m out twenty bucks.
A) is, once again, a pretty good outcome. But the way I see it, B) isn’t a bad one, either. Not for me. Because, no matter what calculus I use, I’m still better off than some poor woman who’s so desperate for money that she wanders up to cars in motion on a dark street, asking for help.
I’d still rather be duped than assume the worst. I’d rather trust than not; and I’m no theologian, but I’m fairly certain that Jesus didn’t bleat “Are you scammin’ me, dude?!” at every leper and lost soul who approached him at a traffic light in downtown Jerusalem. The guy’s birthday is just a few days away, right?
And anyway, I’m only out twenty bucks.