An unfiltered fire hose of flaming condemnation

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.

  • Lisa D

    When i started reading this story… i was thinking “oh no… her brother started using drugs in college or something” i was very happy when i read the rest of the story!

  • Heather, this is enlightening. Thank you.
    But I would also like to chime in on what Denver, CO is doing in an effort to curb this “street-corner” begging.

    I too struggle with your dilemma, like so many others, and I agree with your situation and solution, BUT, what Denver has done is to try and head this off and provide, 1) a community solution to this epidemic, and 2) give us compassionate/wishy-washy givers an excuse NOT to just hand over our money to these people.

    Denver has set up what look like parking meters that accept money like the old-fashioned coin meters. This money goes to fund homeless and indigent programs that offer food and shelter for these “beggars.”

    I hope I am not coming across as ignorant or heartless. I am just frustrated that someone (sometimes 3-4 people) every block can bug you for cash and you have no idea what your money is being used for-they could be pocketing five figures per year. And hey, maybe it doesn’t matter as long as you feel good about your actions.
    Thanks for listening

  • Anonymous

    a long time ago my dad was nearly homeless and he said it’s almost impossible to get a job if you don’t have an address or a place to take a shower.
    Fortunatly for my dad, his best friend had a spare room and let him live there until he got over the serious funk he was in.
    my dad has taught me so much about compassion, he always points out the things the rest of society tries to ignore.
    it seems to me that there’s not much controversy in giving alms to the poor.

  • Aga

    Jenn # 10: I think by ‘rhetorical,’ Heather meant that the answer should be obvious.

  • Kay

    Thanks for yet again making me cry! I was the little girl that gave my clothes and favorite toys to the poor children that would drift through my Dad’s church. When I was much older I volunteered at soup kitchens and the Salvation Army and such giving food to the homeless and when I was there I saw all the much older adults always trying to change the people and even treating them with distain when they couldn’t get through to them. That’s not the point of doing a good deed like that – the point is to give a gift to show love or “Charity” and leave it at that – asking nothing in return, not even a change of heart from the person you’re giving to. I have since stopped volunteering at those places for my safety – I was stalked my another volunteer worker and by some of the homeless men I fed. I miss that kind of giving. I still give money now and then and try not to judge the person standing there with their hand out. Thanks for the lovely story!

  • Darice

    Couldn’t have said it better. I have friends that when I do give, they ask me what will I do if they use it for drugs… I tell them that charity begins and ends with me giving the money. I shouldn’t propose to judge the validity of what they need it for.

  • Why’d you do it Heather..? Why’d you make me go and cry on a Thursday afternoon?

  • I also get ‘impulses” when I see certain people asking for money. It’s some sort of instant connection and before I know it I’m opening my wallet for them. For some reason it doesn’t happen to everyone, just certain people. Not sure what it is, I just get a deep gut feeling that they TRULY need it.

  • Lyla

    Wow, what a good man your brother is.

    I never give money to homeless people on the street because I don’t feel safe pulling out my wallet on a street corner. However, when I can afford to, I will definitely buy somebody a burger or a sandwich and I’ll buy their dog a can of food.

    The overwhelming appreciation I get for a cup of coffee or 2 fish fillet sandwiches from McDonalds breaks my heart every time. I cannot even fathom being in a position where it might have been the only thing I’ve had to eat in days.

  • Katie B.

    Oh, and PPS. I didn’t mean that I wish I would question all…I meant that I wouldn’t question anyone and give without questioning for the sake of giving. That’s all. OK, bye.

  • What a wonderful post Heather. Your brother has given you a gift beyond measure and now you’ve passed it on to all of us. I’ll make sure I live up to it. Thanks.

  • This is wonderful. Yet ANOTHER reason to send fan email. 🙂

  • “Hey Buddy, are you homeless friendly?” The scraggly man was riding a bike and I had just finished doing laundry at a Laundromat, the kind where they spelled it upside down.

    “Yes, I am actually” I chuckled my response. His opening line had me. I gave him the 10 dollar bill I had and he said, “God Bless You.” It something I’ve heard from almost every person I’ve given money to and let me tell you, I am the KING of the homeless and crazy. They are drawn to me.

    I have so many stories of people coming up to me asking me for money and if I have it, I always give it without hesitation – even when they ask for bus fair, a sandwich, a bag of chips, and a pack of Newport Kings.

    http://www.postednote.com/2006/04/21/five-loaves-two-fishes-and-pack-of/

  • exactlythat

    D ~ So behind your harsh/raw exterior there is a warm heart! I hope Leta gets to experience those kind of examples too. Great story, D, great story.

  • MamaLana

    Thank you, Dooce.

  • Stephanie

    I have a friend who worked a lot with people without homes in the past. She shared two great pieces of insight with me in the first few months after I’d met her:
    1. They’re people first. No matter what you’re talking about–autism, homeless, adopted–they’re people first. Which is why I won’t call them “homeless people” anymore. That puts the homeless first.
    2. Don’t discriminate. Guessing whether someone really will use the money for food or drugs instead isn’t a fair judgement. In fact, it’s a discriminatory judgement. She suggested instead to devise a plan and stick to it. Give money to everyone or not at all. My personal choice has been to give food if I have it to someone begging. That way I KNOW what the end result will be: That person will get fed. If I don’t have food, I appologize for not having any. My friend has gone as far as taking people to lunch with her, but I am not as gracious as she. Either way, she’s been a great influence in my life and I know she’d want me to share her ideas with you.

    I love your blog! Keep up the good fight 🙂

  • Hug your brother for me. What a passionate human being he is. There are a LOT of people that could really learn compassion and caring from him…. He is a good man! Fantastic story!

  • jen

    that story was beautiful.
    my husband has always been the guy that hands a $20 to someone on a street corner, too. one evening, a man told us a tale about needing an alarm clock and my husband handed him everything in his pocket…much more than the alarm clock i’m sure.
    no questions.
    no comments.
    that was when i really fell in love.
    it is such an awesome sight to see people helping others. isn’t it?

  • Angie

    Great story! Thanks for making my pregnant butt cry once again today!

  • pam

    I don’t have someone like that who inspired me but I’ve been broke and hungry and have always been helped. Now that I can I have the impulse to give to whomever asks. Does that make me a Rube? Probably. Do I care? No I do not.

  • Jessie

    THank you Heather, once again, for sharing a little piece of your life with me. (I say me because every time i read your blog it feels like your speaking directly to me). I cried with joy reading this, and am truly grateful that there are people in the world like you, and your brother. As depressed as I am today, i cried with happiness. Thank you!

  • Great story.

    I read “Travels with Lizbeth” years ago, a memoir by a man who became homeless (I think because of medical bills). He wrote that many people were often worried that if they gave him money when he was panhandling, he’d spend it on liquor and drugs. And really? Many of us drink to “take the edge off” at the end of a relatively stress-free day, certainly stress-free when compared to being homeless. It made me more cautious about being so judgmental. Just a little.

  • Jen

    I think that’s a very nice story, but I don’t feel the same way.

    I give homeless people a polite acknowledgement (I loathe it when people ignore them or are rude), but I give my money to social service charities and vote for politicians that care about poverty. To me, that’s the difference between change and spare change.

  • yep, what you said.

  • Jessie

    Just noticed i totally repeated myself with that last comment. I know that will probably bug the crap out of you. Sorry, i should have previewed that comment.

  • Yana

    I totally agree.

    I go nuts when I hear people say “I will not vote Democrat, because they give my money to lazy people”.

  • You make me wish I was rich, just so I would have something to give away.

  • I really respect your point of view. I used to share this view, but unfortunately after working in social work for the last four years I’ve become jaded. I now know from experience that four out of five times you try to help someone out and give them money or resources they use it in some way that isn’t in their (or their childrens) best interest. It used to be enough that the one person did, now I find myself being really angry that the majority don’t.

    It is nice to read things like this and know that not everyone shares my crappy, pessimistic, burned out point of view. I hope to find my way back to your side one way or another.

  • It’s posts like this one that restore my faith in humanity. Seriously…sometimes the internet brings you just what you need.

  • Kristen

    Thank you! What a great example your brother’s story is to all of us…

  • WHATTTTTTTTTTTTT???!!!

    haha, no i think it was a good thing to do.

    I know of some people who used to drive thru downtown vancouver and pelt pennies at beggars..

  • Jan

    Thanks – you made a difference today.

  • thanks for sharing this, heather. it was really good to hear on a day that i’m feeling much too cynical.

  • Jen

    I live in DC, and the homeless are so prevalent around here that I confess to having become used to seeming them, to the point that I’ve almost stopped seeing them. If that makes sense.

    One day a couple of years ago, I was walking by a man sitting on the ground and he had a sign that said “Please help even though I’m worthless.”

    I walked by and didn’t say anything. But at the next street corner I started to cry at the very idea of how callous I’d become. I walked back and held out $5 instead of putting it in his cup and when he finally made eye contact I just said “You’re not worthless.”

    I felt more human in that moment that in any since, honestly.

  • liz

    I work downtown, and there are alot of homeless in our area. last year I passed a homeless couple on the street begging for money. I was on my way to get lunch, so I just got three meals instead of one…and they refused to take it. said they couldn’t take packages from strangers because they don’t know what’s in them. it broke my heart.

  • Clarisse

    Beautiful, thought-provoking story. You (for writing this) and your brother (for doing it) are good examples for all of us. That “you’ll never know” line killed me.

    Haven’t we all been in that desperate place, when everything looks impossible, and one random act of kindness (even a friendly cashier smiling) flips a switch and gives us the courage to continue on?

  • Thank you for that story. Your brother is my hero now.

  • Clarisse

    p.s. Jen in comment 134? I just started crying AGAIN.

  • ekp

    Thanks for the sweet story. I have the same struggle everytime I drive by someone begging. I feel so guilty I can’t even look them in the eye while I wait for the light to change.

    Something my mom does is keep several paper lunch sacks full of non-perishable foods such as cheese and crackers packets, vienna sausages tins, apple sauce, etc. She keeps these in her car in a place where she can easily grab them and hand them to someone as she drives by an intersection where someone is standing.

    I haven’t done this myself because I guess I’m lazy and haven’t gotten around to making up the bags, but after reading your post, I feel the urge to go out and get the supplies and stock up.

    Thanks for inspiring me. 🙂

  • EmilyG

    Heather-I am so glad a friend introduced me to your blog. In the few months I have been reading, I can’t count the number of times I have been moved to tears or laughter by your thought-provoking posts, hilarious parenting/ relationship/dog stories, and your awesome political rants (please don’t stop!). You have an amazing sense of humor, are an incredibly talented writer and photographer, and have great taste. I truly can’t wait to go to your page every day 🙂

  • Anonymous

    one day my husband met a homeless guy at work and took him home, gave him a new set of clothes and let him have a shower and sleep on our couch.
    the guy’s name was tim, he had a broken kid’s guitar and a bit of a stammer and he played on the streets for change. i know in austin, the state hospital that used to treat people with learning disabilities closed and all the people who used to live there were turned out on the streets. with a little bit of help tim could have held a job as a grocery sacker or at goodwill but he didn’t have a driver’s license and wasn’t really up to filling out paperwork.
    anyway, there are guys like tim on the streets who aren’t bad people, they smell funny but they mean well.

  • Leslie

    In Boston one cold night a few years ago, I came out of my gym near Copley Square and as I walked to my car a man asked me for money. “If I have $____ I can get the T. to Cambridge and I think get a room in the shelter there, the ones here are full, I already have $___, I only need $___ more.” (Sorry, I am forgetting precise amounts. The bottom line was he still needed about $5.) Self-styled urban sophisticate that I was, I mumbled a hurried “no, thank you, (my ridiculous stock answer to panhandlers then) and passed him by. Behind me I heard him say “Oh, PLEASE.” Not like he expected anything to come of it, but just sort of quietly and resignedly. He was a handsome, dignified-looking African American man in a clean trench coat — obviously someone who had lived a better life at some point– and I had made him beg. I stopped, went back and as he watched I opened my wallet. I didn’t have a five. I had a ten, and a couple ones. I gave him the ten. I said, “This will get you a bite of dinner as well. I’m sorry I was discourteous. Please forgive me.” He thanked me of course, and said no forgiveness necessary of course — BUT, I will never, ever forgive myself for making him beg. I can still hear his voice saying, “Oh, please.” Give when you can, what you can. No questions asked. That’s my new philopsophy. Thanks for the story, Heather.

  • Thanks for that.

    And I thought I loved your monthly letters to Leta.

  • I love this post. It’s once of my favorites of yours so far.

  • I have walked in your shoes, in this particular situation. I have given and I have looked away. But always question whether the choice was right. Sometimes when it was my last two dollars I was handing over. Would someone do the same for me? Does it matter? Would it matter?

    Oh, and you’re not doing it wrong. You are doing your best and that’s never wrong.

  • KD

    Reading this was like reading my own words… I had a very similar experience, and today, I feel that conflict if I do or do not, give to someone asking for money….

    Thanks for posting it…I hope next time I don’t feel like hesitating …

  • Bas

    This is why I read you every single day, and why I want to fly to Utah and stalk you till you have a drink with me.

  • This reminds me of a moment that has haunted me for the last four years. I was on study abroad in London, sitting in a park with my friends having a takeaway lunch. A sickly-looking, dirty, emaciated girl who looked to be about our age came up to us asking for money. We all said no and she wandered away. Later on that day I was wracked with guilt for being so cold to another human being when I have so much that is just handed to me. Ever since, I have wished I could redo that moment and give her some money, my lunch, my sweatshirt–anything. It’s an important lesson to learn and I’m so glad that you had your brother to teach it by his own fabulously compassionate example.

  • It is amazing how one small action by one person can change your view on things forever! Great post!

  • I wanna give your brother a hug!!! That’s a great story — not just about charity, but also about family, and the ripple effect that our actions have. Your brother was just being a good guy, and it sounds like he was born that way. But his action had this other effect, which was to deeply impress and inspire his baby sister, who grew up to write about it on this blog that’s read by hundreds of thousands of people, and who will (no doubt) instill that same lesson in her daughter. THAT makes me all warm and fuzzy and chokes me up, maybe even more than the original story.

    I think a lot of readers missed the point of your story — its not about how to give away money, or how much, or when its appropriate.

    Its about: (1) connecting with other people, whether they are strangers or family, and (2) recognizing that the manner in which you live your life has effects beyond anything you can contemplate in a given moment.

    I love it.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

read more

SaveSave