“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.

“Willie Higgins.”

“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.”

He nodded.

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.

He 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.”

Oh, shoot.

“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.