Playful, elegant, and not above the judicious use of the word “shit."

The rhetorical question

Last week I posed a completely rhetorical hypothetical question about whether or not you would donate money to a starving family on the condition that you would have to give the same amount of money to someone who would use it to buy crack. Contrary to what some people have argued, this was not a question I was going to use to pin people into a corner, nor was it a way to preach my political views. In fact, it wasn’t even a metaphor for the bail out, I hadn’t even thought about that until someone suggested it in the comments. But I can completely see how you could view it as such.

I was genuinely interested in what I knew were going to be a wide variety of responses and the reasons behind those responses. I didn’t give my opinion at first because I didn’t want that in any way to affect your honest answers, but now that so many have weighed in with thoughtful reasons why they would or would not (and some not so thoughtful), I’ll go ahead: I absolutely would give the money. No questions. Not a second thought.

That does not mean that I think you are an evil monster if you disagree with me, and perhaps I should explain my reasons for asking it in the first place. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know that it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with my older brother, Ranger.

I am the youngest of three children. My sister September is five years older than I am, my brother three. My sister and I were somewhat close growing up, but she was already in love with the man who would become her husband by the time I had reached an age where we had anything in common. I was much closer to my brother, and he was my hero. I thought he was the brightest and funniest person alive, and in high school I was proud whenever I got a teacher who had taught Ranger before me. They always gave me special treatment as Ranger’s little sister because he was charming, hard-working, and a total smart aleck. I remember sitting in my Freshman Biology class hearing Ranger and his physics teacher next door screaming jokes at each other to see who could out wit their opponent, and since my Biology teacher had taught Ranger three years before SHE TOTALLY KNEW what was going on. Several times she stopped class to laugh into her sleeve, and to my horror she would announce to everyone, “That’s Heather’s brother you hear. I love that guy.”

I loved that guy, too, and when he left for college the next year it broke my heart. I was the only child left in the house, and I didn’t have my brother there to tell me stories or to make me laugh. The first semester of my sophomore year was lonely, but when he returned home for Christmas vacation it was as if he had never left, perhaps even better than when he’d left because now he had all these stories about his roommates at BYU and the adventures they got themselves into to distract themselves from wanting to have sex. Even 18 years later when he mentions one of those roommates I can remember exactly who he’s referring to and whether or not he was the one who dressed up as Condom Man for Halloween.

But something happened during that Christmas vacation that changed a fundamental part of me, and I bet you he doesn’t even remember this. I’d forgotten about it until last week when my brother and I met for lunch, and sitting there across from him at that sushi restaurant and listening to his stories I remembered what a profound effect his influence has had on me.

It was Christmas 1990, and he and I went shopping at a local mall to find gifts for the family. It was bitterly cold outside made worse by a cutting wet breeze, winters in Memphis are like that, and as we pulled out of the parking lot at the mall we passed a man standing on the median of the road selling single stem roses for $2. He was wearily disheveled, not dressed at all for the weather, and looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. He could have been starving, but he also could have been a drug addict. I’ll never know.

We’d always been taught that you ignore these people, they’ll take your money and use it to buy booze, or they’re somehow scamming you. Better to keep your money and do something more productive with it. Except Ranger pulled right up to the man, handed him a twenty dollar bill and said, “I’d like a rose for my sister,” and he pointed toward the passenger seat. “I haven’t seen her in months.”

The man looked down at the bill as if he were holding a fragile newborn animal, and his hands started to shake.

“Aw man,” he said. “I ain’t got no change for this. You got something smaller?”

“No,” said Ranger, and then as he shifted the car into drive he continued, “Please keep it.”

The window was still down as the car pulled away, and I’ll never forget how he called after us, “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW, MAN! YOU’LL NEVER KNOW!”

As we pulled up to a stop light in silence Ranger finally spoke up. “I saw him when we first drove into the parking lot hours ago. No telling how long he’s been out there, and he doesn’t have change for a twenty? LET HIM HAVE MY TWENTY.”

I asked Ranger if he cared what that man did with the extra money and he said he hadn’t even thought about that. It was just evident that the man selling roses needed those extra eighteen dollars more than he did. It felt like the right thing to do.

Does this mean that I give money to every homeless person or beggar I encounter? No, but I have frequently, and am inclined to err on the side of charity because of my brother’s example. (And yes, this can be extended to all sorts of volunteer work and charity) And there have been many instances when I’ve ignored the homeless because of the very thought that they would use the money I gave them to do something stupid, and without fail I regret that impulse. And then I wonder why I had that impulse in the first place, and then struggle with myself when I experience that impulse again. Because I have to believe that even if only one of the hundreds of people uses that money to feed themselves or their dog or their hidden, desperate children, or even if they use it to have a more comfortable night than the one they had last night, then we will have done right in every instance by fighting that impulse.

  • There you go again, being all compassionate and caring. Sheesh.

    These people have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps! They’re a drain on society! They’re taking all our tax dollars!

    What? All our tax dollars are paying for a $10 billion-per-month war we shouldn’t be in, and helping cover spa treatments for Lehman Brothers executives?

    Oh. I’d rather give it to the homeless and destitute.

  • It’s pretty easy to see why you would consider your brother your hero. Thanks for sharing that story. As frustrated and scared as we can be right now, it’s easy to see that things could always be worse.

  • Maria

    That was a beautiful story, thanks for sharing. Your brother sounds like a great guy.

  • Kristen from MA

    R-amen, Heather. R-amen.

  • Your brother sounds awesome…

    Thanks for the heartfelt story.

  • Tiffany

    That was beautiful. I’ll definetly be thinking twice when I see those people now. Especially when half my company is getting laid off even as I write this.

  • Good on you! I remember when I realized that it was OK to give money away. I grew up in a less-than-optimal situation which instilled a sense of scarcity and greed that it took me years to outgrow. It was liberating to realize that it’s OK to share.

    Yeah, I’d rather trade my $20 to a homeless guy for a rose than fund a Brazilian wax for a Lehman Bros employee any day.

  • Jace

    Cheers to your brother, and anyone as compassionate as he.

  • Ariel

    Right on!

  • Jenn

    not to be a nerd, but it’s not a rhetorical question since you were expecting an answer. 🙂 it’s just a hypothetical.

  • Loved the part about your brother; I know exactly what that feels like and it is irreplaceable.

    And yes, I’m with you there on the giving money away. I go to school in the Tenderloin (which is such a bad area that it has engendered its own form of hepatitis– Hepatitis T– no joke) and there are hundreds of needy people. Who to give to and who not to seems so arbitrary sometimes; lord knows what they’ll really do with it, but occasionally I’ll give anyway. Tax on the charitable? Maybe, but it’s worth it I think.

  • Meg

    First time posting a comment here- I have to say I’ve been similarly saddened at my sometimes gut reaction to this same situation – my blue collar, all-about-work-ethic family would have you believe that every person out there begging is in that situation because they simply did not try hard enough. I like your side of things much better- a heartwarming story and certainly an inspiration.

  • Rachel

    being the daughter of a man who felt his life was too much for me to handle, so he disappeared for the last 8 months of his life to live homeless, broke and alone on the street…i know that sometimes…sometimes there is something they need more than money.

    Your brother has gotten what very few of us have figured out…charity, compassion, giving isn’t about caring what they do with it or asking for thanks. It’s about doing it and knowing you did what you could.

    thank you for sharing.

  • Stephanie

    Beautifully written. What a lovely story. Also, your brother sounds like a class act. Thank you for sharing.

  • stacy

    thanks for explaining your story and reasoning behind the question Heather. Everyone would be so lucky to have your brother as an example of character while growing up. Hope all those nutjobs who said such mean things about you and your “agenda” in last weeks comments feel like total turds. But we both know they won’t. Because, well, they are turds you see.

  • Steph

    Thank you so much for sharing that story with me. It made me feel both compelled and warm inside. I will always remember the first day I legally could drive. I was so excited to go to the mall or the movies and hang out without being escorted or picked up miles away that I was just putting along in my Camry. I saw a woman on the side of the road trying so hard to change her tire, a stones throw from the mall I was headed to where people were abundant. Had anyone stopped? No. She had the time to pull over, put emergency equiment out, get the jack under and get her car a foot off the ground before I pulled over to help. I felt so good being late to the movie that I didn’t care that I missed the whole plotline. I just ate my popcorn and felt warm and fuzzy the rest of the night.

    Thank you everyone who has made a persons day or night better just by saying “let me help.”

  • When I didn’t have money I would hang out or give food. Now that I have money I give that, because making money takes up all my hanging out time. I’m not sure which one I like giving better. Either way, we’re all just people, all just trying to get by. Who cares about intentions?

  • Susie

    I sure like you 🙂 You make my heart smile.

  • Oh my gosh, Liz C, I think you’re right. It’s just a way of thinking, isn’t it? It’s good to share. Even money.

    I have NEVER thought of money in that way. Ever. Thanks. Honestly.

  • Anonymous

    Oh this made me tear up, in a good way.

    I don’t give to homeless people as much as I could or should. Living in NYC and seeing numerous people asking for money on the subway, I’ve gotten a little to used to it. Thanks for reminding me that although I’m unemployed at the moment, I’ve got a lot more than a lot of people.

    Also, I broke up with my last boyfriend because of his lack of compassion and one of these things was that he hated homeless people. He was from Dallas and always complained that his last girlfriend ‘saw angels in the eyes of bums’. Like that was such a horrific character flaw on her part. It’s funny now that her fundamentalist mother indoctrinated her to see ANGELS everywhere, but at least it helps others.

    Errr, thanks for this blog too. I’ve been reading for about 5 years and this is my first comment. You make me laugh.

  • You are a beautiful writer. Thanks for sharing that story.

  • The cynic in me is lost when I come across an outstretched hand and desperate eyes. I always imagine how I would feel if everyone turned their backs on me. I have to give because I don’t understand who decided that I should have and the person asking shouldn’t.

  • I posted something on my blog yesterday that emphasizes this concept too… it’s strange to think how many people constantly focus on the end result of an action (money for drugs, money for food), rather than looking at the issue that came first (homelessness, hunger). Seeing how people behave in situations like this really gives a clear indication of the true character of a person…

    It’s compassion— something so many seem to lose touch with the older they get…

  • Jeff

    Yeah, that’s awesome.

  • memikeyounot

    Thanks, Heather. I needed that piece of upbeat writing before my lousy day begins. Thank you for sharing.

  • Dude, that got me all teary. That story was amazing and full of love. Thank you so much for sharing it Heather!!

  • Beautiful story, thank you for sharing with us – and making us think twice about lumping all homeless and needy people into one category of “drug addicts”. Your brother sounds like a great person.

  • T.

    This has touched me in many ways – more than I want to confess, even as an anonymous person here on this blog.

    All I have to say is that this is beautiful, and this is so true, and I will try to remember this story every time I pass someone who is in an unfortunate situation in their life.

    Thank you.

  • BTW, I noticed Chuck’s collar today in your daily chuck – hedgehogs and mushrooms?! How adorable! I have to flip through your previous style days and see if you mentioned where you bought it from.

  • What a great story.

    Isn’t it great how the little things can make such an impression that will last your lifetime. You never know how your actions are affecting other people.

  • It’s so fascinating to me that charity is something that must be taught. I am in no way exempt from this as I have had many similar experiences with my own generous mother, and it was she who taught me about giving. Also, as a former Director of Development for a non-profit, I can tell you that income level has nothing to do with a person’s generosity. It’s often the people of very modest means who give the most.

    You’re brother sounds wonderful – how lucky you were to have such a life changing example. I’m sure in posting this, you will have passed that lesson forward.

  • bre

    I agree.
    I always thought, it doesn’t matter what they do with the money, as long as it makes them happy. And if drinking until they’re wasted, eating a big mac, or putting the money in a savings account makes them happy? Then I’ve helped make someone happy. Not my place to judge!

  • Joanne

    I think that is a lovely story and it really speaks well about you and your brother. I agree about giving people money when you have it and they don’t, regardless of what they are going to do with it. I used to really struggle with whether or not I should buy candy from kids who were not selling it for ‘school’, as they announced at the train station, but for money for their drug addicted moms, usually. I knew from experience that if they went home without the money, they’d get their ass kicked, but if I gave them money, was I not perpetuating the cycle and giving their mother drug money? I didn’t care, I couldn’t stand the thought of that kid getting in trouble because I was trying to do the right thing. Obviously, the right thing is to help if you can. I also believe in volunteering and giving to groups that help the homeless, the drug addicted, etc., but you just have to do what feels right, as a human being.

  • Wow Heather, thanks for sharing that. I had an opposite experience in college, when I was walking with a guy I’d been dating for a few months and gave change to a guy who asked for 50 cents (literally, that’s all he asked for). After we’d moved past, my boyfriend said to me “You shouldn’t do that, he might just use it to buy alcohol.” I was really upset by this (though also kind of interested to know where I could get booze for 50 cents). The relationship ended soon after, and I remember that as one of the first rifts.

    I work in nonprofit fundraising, and I’m all-too-familiar with the scrutiny that comes from someone giving you their money. We have to document and report the shit out of every foundation dollar we get. But the fact is, any charitable contribution is made with trust that the recipient will use it for a good purpose, and to refuse to give simply because you cannot absolutely control the use of the money is not in the spirit of charity. Your brother had it damn right.

  • Lisa

    That’s the kind of story that makes a person pause and well, think a bit of the state of everything. It is good to remember that charity can be given in many ways….not just in dollars. Some of us may not feel comfortable giving money to someone on the street, but may feel more comfortable giving a ride to a senior citizen loaded with shopping bags who doesn’t have a car (for instance). I think that we all have different giving comfort zones and shouldn’t be judged by the means of our generosity. It just feels good to give of ourselves. And like “they say”, charity begins at home.

    I too think the bailout is crazy.

  • Leena

    thanks for sharing….your brother is good.

    ps…is he single 🙂

  • If a person’s situation is so desperate that they’re panhandling strangers, I absolutely don’t begrudge them a bottle of cheap vodka or a rock of crack. Obviously, when I hand over a little bit of change or a few bucks to somebody I HOPE they’re going to get a hot meal or a warm place to stay out of it, but the amount of change I have floating loose in my pocket is not going to make a lasting change in that person’s life. I’m buying them short-term comfort, and people do what they need to do to get buy.

  • I used to work in a Women’s Centre in a rough area of my town where we had a clothing exchange for the women who would drop in. One day, a staff members saw one of our regulars selling clothes that she had received from our exchange on a corner not far from our Centre. This opened up a shit storm of debate among our staff and volunteers, about whether or not she should lose her rights to the clothing donations for selling what she had received for free.

    I (and many of my co-workers) argued that it went against our mandate, and beyond our rights to dictate what our clients did with the donations once they walked out our doors. If that women needed 5 dollars more than she needed a pair of jeans, then by all means, let her make that trade. In another context, she would be called an entrepreneur. The dispute settled down, the woman came back to the clothing exchange without incident, and our clients maintained the right to do what they would with the resources they were given.

    Another commenter after the first post pointed out that we are stroking our own egos when we try to impose our own ideals and attach strings to donations. I completely agree. Every individual knows better than anyone else what they need at that moment.

  • Chuckles

    Wonderful story, wonderful brother.

    I didn’t comment on the post in question because I didn’t have a good answer. I likely would have leaned towards saying yes, but…it was an odd question and I forgot all about it.

    Thanks to this story I shall remember it.

  • Mandy

    Thank you.

  • I am with you. I often don’t give money as I should–as I often don’t carry any money with me. But I too have a brother who is thoughtful and has given the coat off of his back in the dead of winter to a guy at a freeway exit. He often buys an extra meal at McDonalds and hands to someone who appears down on their luck.

    I wish I was more aware and gave more outright to those so obviously in need. I too must learn to not question what they might do with it. I certainly could skip a latte and give someone a litte comfort.

    Thanks Heather for your insight. Thanks to your brother Ranger for being that guy.

  • julie

    You can never know what that homeless person will do with the $20, in many cases probably waste it away, but if we can’t have faith in others, and in ourselves, then what do we have? I like to think of a world where people are given chances. Where we can give that money because we realize we don’t understand how that person got there and like you said, need it more than us. You never know where a kind gesture can lead in the great big scope of things.
    Reminds me a bit of my sister. Here in Barcelona we have a lot of Indian/Pakistani immigrants who try to make some money selling roses downtown. She always buys the ugliest, most wilted one; ie, the one she know no one will buy.

  • i would give the crack to the starving family and feed the crackhead.

    (p.s. you’re rad; but it’s a hypothetical question, not a rhetorical one. 🙂 )

  • kudos to you, heather and to ranger. we never know everything about anybody! we all need compassion sometimes…. so why shouldn’t the next person who walks by me. wonderful post.

  • Theresa

    When you posted the original query, Heather, I didn’t read the comments because – although I expected a good number of compassionate responses, I figured you’d also get a lot of “screw ’em, tell ’em to get a job” comments and I didn’t want to be disappointed in my fellow man. I too try to err on the side of charity (although I also have to fight the cynic within), but I think it helps me more than it could possibly help them. I hold no illusions that a dollar or two (or twenty) will make any lasting difference in anyone’s life, but the very act makes ME a better person.

    The first Mother’s Day after my mom died, I was at the grocery store, where there was a huge display of flower bouquets for last-minute gifts. My eye was drawn to an elderly lady struggling to get her shopping cart through the checkout lane and out to her car. She seemed frail and lonely and my heart went out to her. I quickly bought a bouquet and followed her out to her car, where I gave it to her and told her Happy Mother’s Day. She was confused, so I explained that I couldn’t be with my own mother, so I hoped that she wouldn’t mind enjoying the flowers in her honor.

    With a tear in her eye, she reached up and patted my cheek and told me that my mother would be proud. I hugged her and ran to my car, where I sat and sobbed for a half hour.

    I don’t give as often as I should, and I still have those cynical thoughts, but I’m trying to be a better person. And how can helping out someone who appears to be in need be a bad thing? Even if it is a scam or they’ll use the donation for something else, the act of giving itself helps ME, and I can’t help but feel that puts a little more goodness out into the world.

  • Chris

    AMEN!!!

    I wish I had a Ranger in my life!!!

    Chris, the Only Child…

  • H.>

    A timely and moving vignette. I am so glad you explained your original question had no political motivation–you almost lost me.

    Thank you–this one had juice.

  • I remember, several years back, being in the parking lot at college and hearing a song/remix type thing called “Underwear Goes Inside the Pants” by Lazy Boy. I looked it up when I got home, and I will never forget this quote:

    “This homeless guy asked me for money the other day. I was about to give it to him, then I thought, ‘He’s just going to use it on drugs or alcohol.’ And then I thought, “That’s what *I’m* gonna use it on. Why am I judging this poor bastard?'”

    As long as I can buy beer (and there are times I can’t), I will never begrudge and I will never hold judgment. I and my husband, like almost everyone, are only one hard knock away from the same thing, and I won’t ever forget that.

  • K

    Your brother is my newest hero (an over-used word for an underused occupation)

  • *THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE*