Giving Money to Strangers

I'm fine with handing out change, but don't like feeling conned

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By David Hammond

Leaving FFC on Lake Street, I frequently see guys standing by Five Guys and the Wells Street Popcorn,  hitting up civilians for spare change or, more frequently, folding money.

I’m fine with helping people and with handing out change, but I don’t like being conned by some story about how the person’s car broke down nearby, and if I could just give them $20 and my address, they’ll mail the money back to me right away.

It’d be even better to get a little token something in return.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, last month I spent an afternoon in a Cairo bar where I learned something about drinking in the Muslim world. During that brief time in an Egyptian tavern, I also learned about giving in the Muslim world.

As we were sitting at our table, a man came by offering small packets of Kleenex.  I had seen him making the circuit around the bar, and almost everyone gave the man a few Egyptian pounds and took a packet of Kleenex.  John Martin, my drinking buddy, did too.

When the Kleenex man moved on, I asked Martin, “Did you need those tissues?” He said, “No, not really,” but he told me he always gives guys like that money. Sometimes he actually needs Kleenex, but “buying” them is always a way to help the needy person with something other than an out-and-out handout.

What I saw in Cairo was a form of charitable giving based on the exchange of something, not a lot, but something that makes the giver feel like they’re helping while getting something in return (even if that something is sometimes not really needed). Perhaps more importantly, it gives the charity-seeker a sense that they’re doing something more than just holding out their hands (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I’m not suggesting that this is a system that could take root in Oak Park specifically or the United States in general (the traditions are probably not in place), but I believe this system of giving something in return for something is a healthier approach to mendicancy than what seems the current custom of simply asking for money…or, worse, relating some hackneyed narrative designed to trick passersby into handing out money under the pretense that it’s a loan.

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