Beggars and choosers

On Friday morning, as I was rushing for the commuter train, I ran into a fellow at the end of the platform, holding a homemade sign that said, “I’m a veteran, out of work, need food, housing.”

My suburban instinct was to avert my eyes, walk around him and catch the train. But instead, I stopped, reached for my wallet and handed him a few bucks, which he eagerly grabbed. “God bless you, sir,” he said. “Thank you. That’s good for a cup of coffee.”

“Enjoy it,” I replied, feeling pretty good about my good deed, until I reached the platform, where I was met by a Greek chorus of commuters complaining over what I did.

One guy insisted the beggar had more money than me, that I was only encouraging him and that now he would be back on Monday. Someone else grumbled that the guy had a Mercedes, probably an S-Class, while another was sure the money would go toward a bottle of booze or, worse, drugs. They had seen him around town and were convinced he wasn’t a veteran or homeless.

No good deed goes unpunished, and now I was questioning whether I had done a good deed or a stupid deed.

Then everyone started sharing personal stories about the times they got softhearted and got duped. One guy remembered buying a beggar a Subway grinder that he threw away; another discovered that the “down-and-out” fellow he helped lived in a nice apartment with a flat-screen TV.

All of this reminded me that just a few weeks ago, I was accosted by a panhandler who said he needed bus fare to get back to Massachusetts. I didn’t believe him, but foolishly gave him $10 anyway and I regretted it for the rest of the day.

Every afternoon outside Grand Central, I run the gauntlet of people who want money, some of whom are in wheelchairs. We’ve all read stories in the New York Post about scam artists who pretend to be blind and lame and actually live the good life in their Manhattan apartments.

But let’s face it, we can’t conduct an eligibility test every time someone asks for a few bucks. And we’ll never show any generosity if we believe people are always out to deceive us.

In the end, we’ll be judged by how much we gave, both wisely and unwisely, and not by how much we got. So I’m convinced it’s better to err on the side of generosity. Besides, I’m more accustomed to getting than giving, which is why I need to exercise those spiritual muscles from time to time.

An old-timer once told me that during the Great Depression, when you were down to your last buck, you gave it to someone worse off than yourself because God would amply reward you for your compassion and kindness. This got me fantasizing that I might win the recent $600-million Powerball for helping that fellow, so I bought a lot of tickets to increase my chances.

The next day, as I was driving out of the Wal-Mart parking lot, there was another guy with a sign, collecting contributions. I pulled out my wallet, rolled down the window and gave him a couple of bucks. “God bless you,” he said as I became convinced that after these two selfless acts of generosity in one week I was destined to win Powerball.

So I was feeling pretty good until my friend Peter said, “That guy is going to buy the winning Powerball ticket with your money, and he won’t even remember you.” I laughed off the idea, but what went unsaid was that if he did, I swore to myself that I’d track him down across 50 states.

Then on Monday morning, when I arrived on the train platform, my commuter buddies couldn’t wait to tell me they saw the fellow I helped talking on his iPhone. Maybe my money went to help pay his bill for unlimited Verizon service.

By the way, I didn’t win Powerball, although I got two numbers … out of 20 tickets. That’s a start.


Joe Pisani may be reached at [email protected]

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