Friday, June 22, 2007

Getting hit up, not hit on

Getting hit up is not unlike getting hit on in that both involve men who want something from you and require you to determine how to respond.

These days (and "these days" dates back decades), when a strange man starts talking to me, the opening line is either, "I'm homeless" or "I'm not homeless", and he's saying it not strictly to me, but to the entire car. He's likely to say he needs money so he can spend the night in a shelter or that he's selling newspapers to support the homeless.

Yesterday's subway ride was more original. "Mike had a stroke," the first guy bellowed out to nobody in particular, interrupting our conversations, reading, dozing. "One side of Mike is paralyzed," he added, somehow letting us know that he was describing himself. He then made his way through the car, accepting money from out-of-towners. New Yorkers sized up his story and he didn't score well on the credibility scale. Those of us with unlimited Metro cards just weren't convinced.

At the next stop Mike, despite the paralysis, jumped off, leaving the stage for a tall, neatly-attired man, who could have passed for a prep school headmaster. He was articulate and better groomed than anyone else among us. "This is awkward", he announced, "but I need help. I moved to New York with my wife and baby, and the only jobs I was offered paid $9 an hour. Today I got a job for $18 an hour, but it requires I indemnify myself. I have no family here and need $500, which is why I'm appealing to strangers. I have $403 and hope you'll help me get the rest by tonight".

This story was a challenge. I could identify. He might be on the level. Should I put out? What would Angelina Jolie do? If someone's desperate enough to beg on the subway, you feel a responsibility to come through. I grappled with what I'd do if I were desperate for cash and had no resources.

Once you've been taken by a stranger with a story, you tend to be less generous. Years ago, as I was putting a dollar bill into the paper cup of a who'd "had my wallet taken and need $30 to get home," I realized the paper cup was a give-away. I'd been scammed and was determined to be more discerning.

That guy may have ruined it for these guys, just as these guys may be wrecking it for someone else. Giving money to strangers feels too much like a one-night stand. Better to buy products made by women in developing nations.

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