Suckered at Sunoco
by John Hilton
"Can you tell me how to get to the United Way headquarters?"
The short answer, to a person on foot at the West Stadium Sunoco, would have been, "farther than you'll want to walk."
But in hindsight, I guess that was the answer he expected.
"I've been walking from church to church, trying to get $20 together to buy gas for my car," the man went on. He'd approached me and my wife as we walked my daughter's dog.
Trying to think of someplace closer, I asked, "Have you tried Peace Neighborhood Center?"
"Yes, but they only help with groceries. They don't have gas money. My car's out of gas at Briarwood. I need to be in Benton Harbor for a funeral by 4." It was already 2 p.m.
"What's your name?" my wife asked.
"Do you have a job?" she asked.
"I worked at the hog plant for forty years," he replied.
"In Benton Harbor?" she asked.
She knows Benton Harbor.
"No ma'am. In West Virginia."
I looked him over. From his billed cap to his work boots, he looked like a working man. No alcohol smell, no signs of intoxication.
Having fallen for at least my share of cons in my time, I like to think I've wised up. "I've got a very strong policy against giving people money," I pontificated. But I hadn't seen him before, and what I saw said his story could be true.
"I'm going to go ahead and give you $20," I decided. "But I want to take your picture."
I dug out a $20 bill and handed it to him.
Then I pulled out my phone to take his picture.
"That's illegal!" he said.
"What's illegal?" I asked.
"Taking someone's picture. You can't do that."
"But you agreed," my wife objected.
"What'll it be?" I demanded. "Do I take your picture, or do you give me back my $20?"
He stuck his chin in the air with an aggrieved look. I took his picture.
turned and headed into the gas station and we continued down the street.
The next day I ran into my neighbor Stu. He knows a lot of people I don't.
I pulled out my phone and brought up the picture.
"Do you know this guy?" I asked.
Stu looked at the picture and gave a crooked grin. "Yeah, I know him. He owes me $4."
"So he's not from West Virginia?"
Stu's look suggested that maybe I wasn't the smarted person he'd talked to today.
"He lives in the Embassy [hotel]. He used to work with me at Damon's."
"So his name's not Willie Higgins?"
Stu shook his head.
"And he didn't need gas for his car to get to a funeral?"
Stu gave me another look.
"His 'car' is public transportation."
Stu was laughing at me now. I started to laugh, too.
Sixty-one years old, thirty-three years a journalist, and I still let myself be suckered.
But at least I got his picture.
[Originally published in September, 2013.]
On September 21, 2013, Patti wrote:
This past winter, a young lady was around the food co-op asking for money to get back home to Georgia. She had a very long story about how she had just moved up here, realized how cold it was and now just wanted to go home. I felt bad saying no to her but I also have a policy of not giving $ directly (unless it is for Groundcover). I felt like a heel until the next day I heard her asking someone else for money...to get back home to Alabama.
On September 21, 2013, Anika wrote:
This guy approached me in a restaurant parking lot with a story about 4 kids starving and stuck at Briarwood and got very angry and walked away muttering curses when I told him the Delonis Shelter was serving a meal in an hour. He obviously didn't expect me to know anything about community resources and was counting on my ignorance and pity and shock to get what he wanted. I apologized that I couldn't help him.
Having been through hard times during my life, during which panhandling was something I did regularly, I know all the tricks and can recognize when I'm being conned.
The best way to get someone to fork over cash is to make them uncomfortable and feel ashamed of their station in life. If someone is truly in need, they tend to be humble and hesitant, as if they would really rather not be in this position. Just some tips.
On September 22, 2013, Katie Whitney wrote:
To err on the side of generosity is always wise, even if it isn't "smart."
On September 22, 2013, John Hilton wrote:
It's tricky. I really don't want to enable addiction, or to reward dishonesty. There's enough of both around without my help.