A scam artist or person in need?
I couldn't take my eyes off the streaks of dried blood on his face, on his blue oxford shirt, on his scraped clenched knuckles. "If you could just lend me $8 - that will get me on a bus to my parents in Towson," he pleaded.
He was a neatly dressed, young, white male, obviously distressed, yet strangely calm. We were standing on the Dupont Circle Metro platform at midday in summer. The 20-something man had approached me as I had stepped off the down escalator.
He spoke in a choppy way: He'd been beaten up and robbed, had gone to the police and reported the incident, and now, really upset, he wanted only to be with his parents. He had no money and needed bus fare.
As soon as I realized that the help he sought was monetary, I was suspicious. I kept asking myself questions. If he had gone to the police, wouldn't they have lent him money for the bus? Or let him call his parents so they could pick him up? Why wouldn't he have washed up? That's what bothered me the most.
The lights were blinking on the platform, announcing the oncoming train. My questions accelerated to a rapid fire.
I wanted to do the right thing. His answers didn't satisfy me; his story didn't add up. But if I were in trouble, I hope someone would help me. Eight dollars wasn't much, but somehow I didn't feel I should give it to him. I don't give money to the homeless man I greet every day on my street corner; I send checks to appropriate organizations.
I finally said, "I'm really sorry, but I don't feel comfortable giving you money. I think you should go to the Traveler's Aid at Union Station, five stops from here."
When the train was in view, I ran toward it, afraid that the man would pursue me into the train. As I fidgeted, waiting for the passengers to exit, I glanced around and saw that he was staring into space.
Had I done the right thing? I asked myself as I elbowed my way into the car.
Later, I phoned my husband and told him about the man in need. Busy, he took it as just another one of the humorous anecdotes that fill my days. I cried, "No, I really want to know what you think. Do you think I am a bad person? Do you think I should have helped that kid?" My confidence ebbed; a child's voice pleaded. "No, you're not a bad person. Your natural tendency is always to be helpful, and if your instincts told you not to trust this guy, then I know you did the right thing."
For as long as I can remember, I've pondered what it means to be a good person, to do the right thing, to make the right choices.
A few days after the Metro incident, my husband phoned me at work and said, "I'm calling to tell you that you are still a good person and I can prove it. In this morning's Washington Post is the story of a scam: A young, white, bloodied man stops women at Metro stations and asks for money." I was jubilant; I was redeemed. I had not misread the situation; I had not forsaken someone truly in need.
When I speak to my mother during our Sunday morning phone chats and I relate an incident from my week, she will sometimes respond, "That's so nice. You are such a good person, Debbie." It always takes me by surprise. There is such comfort in those words - in that blessing - for the moment I believe it.
*Deborah Hefferon is an independent consultant on international education and cross-cultural training.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society