I had miscalculated. Last January I was walking around the city, getting in a little exercise while waiting for my son to be done with his school basketball practice. I had shoved a $5 bill in my pocket in case I decided to pick up a cup of coffee on my return trip to the car, where I'd left my purse.
While walking, I was reminded again of the pain in my foot which had been plaguing me. The pain was getting worse so I decided to see if I could afford to buy pain medication on my self-imposed budget.
In the convenience store, a small bottle of Advil was marked $4.79. The clerk told me, with tax, the total would be about $5.20, too rich for the $5 bill I had in my hand. I was ready to replace the box on the shelf when the woman next to me quickly handed over a $1 bill. I said no, of course, but she, and my foot, insisted. Grateful, I took the dollar and paid for the $5.13 worth of pills.
That left me with a whopping 87 cents in change which I decided should go into the charity collection box at the register, as my way of somehow returning the favor the woman had done for me. Before I could do that, though, the store clerk asked if I would give the change to him instead. So I did.
After I got over feeling like a down-on-my-luck street urchin, I realized that the woman had helped me so quickly there had been no time for her to consider whether I was someone in need or someone running a practiced scam. Helping me was her only motive. It felt good knowing people can still be nice to each other when there is no chance for reward or acknowledgment.
I hope that I would have been as generous as my Good Samaritan in a similar situation. But in our jaded world, it's easy to become inured to pleas for help. We are bombarded by people requesting donations for so many causes. A great majority of our daily phone calls are from solicitors for charities, who often can't get their memorized message out before we hang up on them. As our country tries to pull out of an economic slump, even worthy causes are having a hard time coming up with donations.
And then there's the niggling question of need. If I make a donation, where will my money go? How can I be sure the money won't be used by the "wrong" person, whoever that is? How can I be sure I'm not being taken advantage of?
I suppose there's no way to be sure. I have to admit when the clerk asked me to give him the change from my $1 gift, I hesitated for a moment, wondering if maybe I was being duped; that I was playing the part of goat to the woman's hero role.
It could very well be that the clerk was the prosperous owner of the store and that he could have bought all the Advil in Oakland with the loose coins he had in his pocket. As I handed over the 87 cents to him, I reminded myself that it wasn't my place to track down his bottom line.
Giving to others till it hurts may not be possible for everyone these days. Too many people are themselves hurting. But giving -- and receiving, too -- does do wonderful things for the heart.
I walked with a much lighter step back to my car that day, which had nothing to do with the Advil in my pocket but everything to do with a random act of trust.
By Teresa K. Flatley, 11/2002