Wednesday, May 18, 2005

On Charity

I like to think of myself as a reasonably charitable person. I'm unlikely to be anointed a saint, but I'm no miser with the generally good fortune that's come my way. My wife, however, is on another planet -- a planet called The Planet of Absurdly Large Charitable Donations. A few years ago, when we lived in New York, we were both associate attorneys at big-time law firms, making big-time money. For a couple glorious years, we received blush-worthy year-end bonuses.

I took those bonuses and put them toward my student loans. As a result, I was able to pay off my loans in an amortization-friendly three years. My loans were my charity.

My wife, though, liked to give away her bonuses. The vast sums that flowed into her checking account each December flowed out in a flurry of magnanimity. Early in our relationship, I knew I was in for something special when we took a mid-December jaunt to F.A.O. Schwarz in midtown Manhattan, so she could spend some of her bonus dough on Toys for Tots. We left with two shopping carts full of Schwarz schwag.

Things have changed. I'm now in the brown, dull, practical confines of government employment. She now serves the public interest. Neither the government nor the public interest pays well.

So, our old profligacy in handing out our money has been held in check by necessity. Nevertheless, my wife is still a frustratingly and wonderfully charitable person. And I'm still looking around for loans to which I could apply any financial windfall that happens our way.

A few nights ago, a man rang our doorbell. We don't get many unannounced visitors, especially at night, so the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. My wife and I opened the door together and saw a stranger on the other side. He was an African-American man of about 40, holding some brochures and envelopes, wearing a tee-shirt decorated with a graffiti-style "New York."

"Hi there, you folks just moved in, right?"

No, actually, we've been here for a year. Our neighbors just moved in, though. Maybe you're thinking of them.

"Maybe. My name's Fred Little, and I'm the pastor over at the First Baptist Church on 13th Street. Right across from the Safeway."

Okay, great.

"We're doing a fund-raising campaign for the homeless shelter at the church. You've probably seen it." He handed us a piece of paper with the name of the church and some information that we didn't read. "For this weekend, Safeway is matching all donations made by the community, and I wonder if you can contribute."

Sure. Just hold on. I walked over to my wallet, pulled out a $20 bill and gave it to him.

He handed us another piece of paper, with a long list of handwritten names, addresses, and modest contribution amounts. "We don't need your address, but we're doing this with the Red Cross and they'll want to send you a tee-shirt." My wife wrote our names and address on the paper.

He took back the pieces of paper. "Thank you so much. There's going to be a fund-raising event this Friday, from 5 to 7. You should stop by. There will be activities for kids and other fun things."

Thanks, we'll try. Good luck.

I clicked the door shut and locked the deadbolt. As we walked back to our couch, I started to feel creeped out. The name of that church doesn't sound right. And I have never seen a homeless shelter over there. Why didn't he let us keep the piece of paper he have us about the fund-raising? Now that I think about it, the address on that sheet of paper wasn't even the address of the church. If the Red Cross is involved, why wouldn't there be some printed material? A brochure we could actually keep? Why did he think we had just moved in? Did he want to talk only to people who had just moved to the neighborhood, rather than longer-time residents who could spot inconsistencies and inaccuracies in his story?

Now I felt positively icky. I said to my wife, "I'm not so sure about that guy."

"What do you mean? He was a nice man. A pastor."

"Something didn't seem right." We watched TV and went to bed.

The next day, I walked by the church on my way to work. The name of the church was totally different from the name that was on the piece of paper, and the pastor's name on the sign out front was not Fred Little. I scouted the church grounds. There was no sign of a homeless shelter.

We had given a con artist $20. I spoke to my wife later and explained why I thought we'd been taken. She agreed, and added, "If you hadn't been there, I would have given him $40."

A couple sawbucks is not the end of the world, even in our post-law firm existences. But the experience left me with a bunch of feelings, most of which were really unpleasant. It's not fun to be a mark -- especially not an easy one.

But other aspects of the interaction made me feel worse. We live in a predominantly black neighborhood in the throes of what some call gentrification. Two parallel cultures are striving to coexist, one well-established but under pressure and one incipient and bearing the trappings of power. On one hand, there are long-standing black churches and corner stores. On the other, there are white people with granite countertops and Volvos. The two groups live side-by-side, commingled physically. But they rarely interact socially. The "enlightened," liberal whites who come to the neighborhood wring their hands with guilt about what they're doing to the neighborhood. Oh my, gentrification is forcing families to relocate, breaking up the local community. Am I contributing to this destructive process? Can I justify this process economically? Does my arrival bring with it a capacity for additional tax revenue and economic development that will benefit everyone? I don't know -- maybe I'm rationalizing. I'm confused. But the confusion isn't enough to stop them. It hasn't been enough to stop us.

I can't be certain about the man who came to our door. Maybe he was an assistant pastor, and that's why his name wasn't on the sign out front. Maybe all the oddities in his story could be explained away if he were here to do it. But I doubt it. I believe, confidently, that he was not at all what he said. I believe he knew that as white newcomers (my wife is actually Indian, but might as well be white for this purpose), we would be unlikely to know details about the black church around the corner. He knew we would probably go the extra mile -- give the extra $20 -- not to be seen as the destroyers of the community. He knew we would trip over ourselves to show how "enlightened," liberal, and community-minded we are.

And he was right. We didn't pause for a moment during his sales pitch, and we didn't hesitate in giving him our money. For my wife, I think it was an instance of her charitable optimism. She wants to see the best in people, and she wants to live her life founded on the principle that people are inherently honest and good. So she wanted to give to the man. I, however, am a cynical man who often thinks the worst of both other people. But I can't stand the thought of others thinking the worst of me, and I'll overlook an awful lot of evidence in order to make sure they don't. So I wanted to give to the man.

In this particular situation, I doubt I would have avoided feelings of ickiness no matter what we did. If I had vetoed the donation, I would have been wracked with guilt about whether I had made the right call. Did I just tell a legitimate fund-raiser for a homeless shelter that we -- a couple of lawyers in an expensive house -- could not give him anything? Instead, I gave the money and now obsess over the apparent fact that I was manipulated and deceived.

Live and learn, they say. The problem is, I'd probably do the same thing again.


Blogger Henry Baum said...

Great post. This was strangely similar to my experience writing out those greeting cards in the post office. I felt sort of used afterwards. I am a very easy mark. I once gave ten dollars to a guy in NYC who said he needed it to get home. He said he'd pay me back the next day by leaving the $ at the college front desk (New School) and I actually believed him. I checked for a couple days, then gave up. It's one of the oldest scams out there.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Spiral Stairs said...

This wasn't my first time. I gave $20 to a guy at Amsterdam and 96th in NYC who took my address and said he would pay me back by mail. I gave $20 to a guy in Brooklyn Heights who said he would be back in 15 minutes to pay me back. (As though to add insult to injury, he also claimed he worked for the David Letterman show and would give me a free jacket. He even asked me my size.)

There are other examples too. I guess I'm the designated sucker for the minute in which I was born.

1:06 PM  

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