Thursday, December 01, 2011

Like a reverse Grinch, my heart just shrank three sizes


I went out to get some change. I had only 500-rupee notes, and I owed a guy 44 for laundry. It's late at night, most things are closed, but there's a little ice cream shop across the way selling gourmet deluxe ice cream for 39 rupees. (it's only so expensive because it's on Park St. in Kolkata, which is sort of like Park Ave. in New York.) Well, it would get me some change, and it sounded kind of nice; I mean, I like ice cream.

And a beggar guy came up saying how he's trying to get food to feed his children, and I can go buy him the food, he doesn't want money, etc. His name is Sunil. Of course he's lying, but there's that little bluebird of doubt: maybe he's not. I'm in India; who knows. I can go buy him the food. I can see him get some food. I can hand over only enough money for the food. And it would also get me some change. This bird's voice was quite amplified by the fact that I was going to buy a scoop of gourmet ice cream. Suddenly that seemed rather trivial.

We pass some kids sleeping on the sidewalk, who Sunil says are his. And we walk to the place, it's a little run down 3-square-foot hovel where too many kids and adults are wolfing down dal and a couple dudes are cooking chapati over charcoal. And this is the point I don't know exactly how to manage, and therefore this is the point when I get screwed. There's a flurry of Hindi (Bengali?), and somehow Sunil has a bag of chapatis and says it's 150 rupees ($3). I balk, because 150 rupees could buy about five street meals. Of course, I want him to have about five street meals, or at least three, given that he has two kids. If he said one meal was 30 rupees, I'd give him 180 and say "get your kids breakfast tomorrow too." But it's just some chapati! So Sunil says "Oh, I forgot, the chicken" and soon he has also two clay containers that I assume contain chicken. This is still not even close to 150 rupees, but we're getting within my margin of error. I hand over 150 rupees.

Immediately I regret it. There is no way this cost 150 rupees; I'd say 50, tops. Therefore, I am conned somehow. At best, Sunil and his kids ate, and Sunil and the restaurant split the 100 extra rupees. At worst, Sunil just handed the chapatis and chicken back after I walked away, Sunil and the restaurant split 150 rupees, Sunil spent his half on cheap hash, and his kids still didn't eat.

Okay, of course I'm angry, and of course there's nothing I can do about it. Luckily it's only $3, but I feel used.

How can I prevent this in the future? The solution I'd like to adopt is, when approached by a beggar, to categorically yell angrily and move as if to hit him; perhaps this would convince some of them that not all white people are money bags, and that there might be some negative consequence to trying to run their scams. However, this solution is rather uncouth, as well as disastrous if someone is actually honest. I guess the best solution is to just categorically refuse beggars.

It's like an essay I was reading about people who are angry about new changes in video games. Instead of posting on forums about how awful the new change is, they should just stop playing. It doesn't get you any of the "satisfaction" of venting, but to vent and continue playing only signals that you don't really mind the new change. And nobody listens when you vent, and venting does nothing to you besides make your anger worse. Similarly, anything I do besides simply refusing beggars will only make things worse.

Okay okay, so it took me 25 years to learn that I shouldn't give money to beggars, okay, no kidding. Well, I've finally learned it! Sigh.

8 comments:

yincrash said...

Maybe the answer is if someone is both begging and choosing, something is wrong.

slifty said...

It's an age old moral delemma, but don't conflate giving money to beggars with being conned. Sounds like you were conned. Being conned sucks, but it shouldn't turn you off of charity.

My take on the whole "blind donation" thing is that there is n X% chance they use it on drugs… so what? Not giving someone a dollar isn't going to help them clean up their act, but it might help them eat, it might help them take that train, it might help them have a bit more faith in their common man and possibly even themselves.

On a completely different perspective, though (and if you disagree feel free to disregard) I don't even mind giving people money for things like alcohol (or drugs, I guess?). Hey, I chose to spend some of my money on a beer last night, why shouldn't this guy get to make his own choices? I don't give people money to change them, I give them money to empower them. What they do with that power is entirely up to them.

But yeah, if you just wanna buy a guy a meal, I guess next time make sure you pick the venue ;)

Dan Tasse said...

Mike: well put! To his advantage: everywhere else nearby was closed, except one more expensive restaurant and the gourmet ice cream stand.

Dan: So I don't want to conflate charity with getting conned. I think donating to good causes/organizations is good. (obv.)

I think I DO want to conflate giving money to beggars with being conned, because almost every time I've given to beggars, I've been conned. Every time I engage a beggar, either I uncover some logical flaw that I can call them on, and then I pat myself on the back for being clever and move along, or I give them money and only later realize, hey, that didn't quite make sense.

As to your second point, if I get "conned" and they spend it on drugs, is that a bad thing? I think so, yes. "Why shouldn't this guy get to make his own choices?" Because he's shown that he will probably make destructive ones. I'm not sure, but I think that giving without thinking about what people will do with the money is irresponsible, no? It's like donating to charity without researching the charity first.

Sorry, I'm trying to say that in a less harsh way :) Actually, Dan, I appreciate your point of view; it's making me think a bit.

Anonymous said...

If they're on the street asking for money, they probably need the money more than you, con artist or not. And, it's only $3.

Don't listen to their story -- it just doesn't matter and it may not even make sense. Odds are they needed money yesterday, the day before and last week, and they've learned to tailor the story from the truth to something that pulls on the heart strings long enough to get the money. The story is always a lie.

Give or don't give based on something completely arbitrary -- only the elderly women, blueness of their most blue item of clothing, the left handed, some optimum number of missing teeth, whatever -- a random criteria to cut the number of needy down to something more managable. Let someone else take care of those with scarves that are either too blue or not blue enough.

Dan Tasse said...

Anonymous: That is actually a pretty good idea, if you do give to beggars. It solves the problem of "if I give to you, I'd have to give to everyone, and I can't do that".

However, it still doesn't solve the problem of beggars using your money to buy drugs or do something else destructive. (I think this is more a problem in the US than in India, because in the US people who are poor but could actually use the money, i.e. they're not addicted or mentally unstable, can often get help)

Gerrit said...

Late to the party, but here it is. Don't ever give beggars anything at all. Only ever give money and goods to support organizations with charitable missions serving the impoverished. Then you can be much more sure that the money is being used properly.

Aaron said...

i always give money to the beggars that stopped begging.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.