“I hate to bug you but do you have twelve bucks? I’m up here from Georgia and need a brake job for my car and that’s how much I’m short and it would really help me a lot.”
Being a good person is extremely important to me, but I also worry that I’m overly naïve, that I’ll be ripped off, or, even worse, that in my desire to do the right thing I’ll do the wrong thing. It’s the kind of dilemma most people wrestle with, and while there’s always a voice in my head that says I should err on the side of caution and throw a couple of dollars to someone who just might go and spend it on a nineball bag of methamsmackolaine or whatever’s popular on the streets right now most of the time I just mumble that I haven’t got any cash on me. And the fact that most of the time this is true does ease my conscience just a little. In the past I’ve even seen homeless guys standing on corners with signs that say, “Why lie? Want beer” And I’ve had friends who pulled over and gave those guys a couple of dollars.
“They were being honest and that should be rewarded,” my friends say. Oh, thanks a lot for further muddying the moral waters there. Now I feel guilty for not giving those guys money even though I’d feel just as guilty for giving them money. I want to help the homeless. I’ve done volunteer work for homeless shelters. And yet I still don’t know whether giving someone on the street a little money is the right thing or the wrong thing to do. It’s easy to look back on mistakes I’ve made, times when I could see the end result and how and where exactly I screwed up and say, hey, if a situation like that ever comes up again I should do the opposite, or at least something different, but it’s a lot harder to know what to do when I’ll never see the consequences.
And this isn’t helped by TV shows that set up these kinds of dilemmas and ask people, “What would you do?” and catch some people being really good and embarrass some people who get caught behaving like jackasses or just being silent bystanders, which may or may not be worse than being a jackass because all that’s required for jackasses to succeed is for good people to do nothing.
I’m pretty sure I wasn’t on camera, or at least potentially on a TV show, because that sort of thing only seems to happen to people who live near major TV studios. Not that it even occurred to me that I might be TV fodder because I was too busy doing ethical calculus in my head. Ethical calculus is even harder than regular calculus because there are so many more variables and with regular calculus you at least have a chance at getting the right answer, although I’m so bad at math anyway I don’t even know where to start with a calculus problem. I wonder if the possibility of being on camera so much ever alters anyone’s behavior, sort of like the Heisenberg principle, but then physicists tell me that’s a gross misinterpretation of the Heisenberg principle. And I can’t tell them I can’t even begin to understand calculus so physics is light years beyond me, but that’s another story.
The ethical calculus started with the woman herself. Nicely dressed in white jeans and a pink top, with bleach-blonde hair she clearly wasn’t homeless. But did that mean her story was likely to be any more true? The store was a pretty good distance from the nearest car repair place. It wasn’t a huge distance, but there were other stores closer to the car repair place. Why’d she choose one so far away? And I have no idea how much the average brake job costs, but what kind of car repair place wouldn’t spot someone twelve bucks? Maybe she’d collected money from other people in the store, since it seemed like an oddly specific amount, and that made her story seem a little more believable. But then I wondered why she drove several hundred miles without a credit card or a cell phone to call someone back home who could help. If she were obviously poor that would have explained it, but she wasn’t.
Written out it seems like I was frozen there staring at her like a tree frog for about three and a half days but the truth is it was only about ten seconds before I stammered out that I didn’t have twelve dollars. This was technically true, but technically true is also technically lying, since I think I had five dollars in my wallet that I could have handed over, but before I could do any ethical calculus weighing feeling guilty versus feeling ripped off she was gone.
On my way out I passed her holding hands with a guy the size and shape of a large whiskey barrel. With his other hand he was holding a cell phone to his ear and I overheard him say, “Yeah, we’re fine. We’ll see you soon.”
Had they gotten the rest of the money? Did she even really need any money? Was I part of some bizarre psychological experiment? I was still turning these questions over in my mind a couple of hours later when I got a call on my phone.
“Hi. This is Carl. I’d like to talk to you about your recent computer purchase.”
I hung up without having to do any ethical calculus, but why is it so much easier to spot a scam when it’s not staring you in the face?