A month or so back, as I was going into Borders one Monday evening, a woman approached me with: “Sir. I wonder if you could help me? I haven’t eaten in three days.” I gave her a few bucks and she thanked me and said: “I’m going right over to get something to eat.”
Last night as I was going into Borders, the same woman approached with the exact same spiel. I remember clearly the “I haven’t eaten in three days” and the “going right over to get something.” I gave her a few bucks, even though I realized I had been played a bit. I suppose “haven’t eaten in three days” can be effective, and I felt bad for the fact that she had to stoop to such in the search for money. She was certainly no spring chicken. She looked around 60, but I suspect she is younger. Her clothes were not remarkably bad, and though she was thin she didn’t look to be in bad health. She was certainly not attractive, though.
In the past, I have taken people into food places when they’ve asked for money, but the closest place to Borders is the Mall across the street, and I also had a meeting of my Borders writing group in a few minutes. So, I gave her a few bucks and let her go her way. I wonder if she really bought food, or if I actually supported her drug habit. I hope the former.
Such encounters leave me sad. What circumstances led that woman to me twice? I believe some homeless individuals are on the street because they’re lazy or they have drug habits that they’ve allowed to get out of hand. I believe those folks are in the minority, though. Maybe some homeless people made bad choices somewhere along the way. But who hasn't? It's a shame that so many can end up lost in what is still an affluent society.
And as for getting help, research on altruistic behavior does not endear my fellow humans to me. Many, many people do help, of course. But most of that is in a form that doesn't much inconvenience us. And it bothers me to know that people are less likely to help another person if:
1. The person needing help is physically unattractive
2. The person has any unpleasant physical characteristics, even including an ugly birthmark.
3. The person appears to be intoxicated with any substance.
4. the surroundings in which the person asks for help are unpleasant. (Very noisy, for example.)
5. The person in the position to offer help is under any time pressure.
6. The person in the position to help is in a bad mood.
Years ago, I was in Boston with a colleague of mine for a neuroscience conference. We were riding the city busses one night when a woman got on mumbling incoherently to herself. She had also clearly wet herself all down the front of her jeans.
After a couple of stops, the woman got up to leave and fell down the steps, ending up half in and half out of the bus. Besides the bus driver, there were about 15 people on the bus. No one moved. After a moment, my colleague and I both got up to help her. We got her to a bench at the bus stop and made sure she was sitting OK, and gave her back her large shopping bag full of what appeared to be trash. Then we returned to our bus and resumed our lives. I’ve wondered many times over the years what happened to her. I can’t imagine she’s still alive.
I wonder, too, how long the woman who hadn’t “eaten in three days” will last? Will I see her again in a month? Or sooner? If I don’t see her, will it mean she’s doing better? Or that’s she’s dead?
Twice now, we’ve met. She’s become one of my memories. Like it or not, she’s a part of me now. It’s harder to be blind when you can put a face on suffering.