As If Driving Wasn't Hard Enough

What’s with the soldiers begging for money in the middle of the road?

I’m assuming you have this where you live: Guys in fatigues standing in the road at big intersections collecting change from drivers. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for handing out money willy nilly to people in need - just yesterday I gave a con artist a $5 bill because he “ran out of gas.” (Don’t lecture me on the odds that he wasn’t a con man. I figure if anyone has the stones to walk up to someone and ask for free money, his problems are bigger than my small donation can ever begin to solve. Plus, with my luck, if we all stop handing out money at gas stations, I’ll end up actually running out of gas and money at a gas station someday and won’t that be just a karmatic kick in the pants.)

But the roadside soldiers are another thing. I have enough trouble avoiding collisions and running down pedestrians without having people in uniform walking around in the middle of the street without reflective vests or a warrant.

Plus, I think it’s just such a bad image. What do foreigners think, when they see our Army guys going car-to-car with a bucket and a tiny U.S. flag, asking for handouts. Is this job covered in boot camp and the military academies? (“Don’t walk directly into the path of the car.”  “Wait until the light turns red and then start at the front of the line, for maximum coverage.” “Don’t forget to say ‘thank you’ and ‘have a blessed day.’”)

I gladly give soldiers and anybody else in and out of uniform when they are in front of the grocery store. But asking for donations in the streets makes us dangerously close to being Bombay. I’m in my car, here. Is this not America?

“Don’t make eye contact,” I told my daughter when we caught a red light just before getting onto the turnpike the other day. We were first in line and the soldier was so close to our car, you couldn’t see his head. She hates me at these times. If it were up to her, we would empty my purse into that soldier’s bucket, give him all of my credit cards, write him a big fat check, and set him up with a payment plan. She is the most generous person I know.

Once I took her and two friends into New York City for the day, saw a show, had lunch, did some shopping, and part way through the day, she asked me if she could have some cash. I had two $10 bills, a $5 bill and a $1 bill. “Which ones do you want?” I asked her. “All of them,” she said.

I handed them over, thinking, geez, here’s a 13-year-old girl in New York with her friends, she probably wants to guy a couple purses and maybe a t-shirt.

The first homeless person we encountered, she handed over the first $10 bill. Less than two blocks later, she found another homeless person and handed over the second $10 bill. That lady was selling greeting cards. My daughter declined the cards, just gave the money. (It was alright, though. The cards were filthy dirty and I think had been signed and addressed already.)

The last $6 she gave to a third homeless person. I felt like I had just watched someone lose all their money in the $10 slot machines in their first 15 minutes in Atlantic City. “You should have told me you were going to give it away, I would have gotten smaller bills and it would have lasted you longer,” I told her. “You could have spread the wealth a little bit.” She didn’t care. She made three homeless people pretty darned happy that day, especially the two who got the ten-spots. One of them was clearly speechless. Or high.

I know that she gets this sucker generous spirit from me. Growing up, she has watched me put money in collection plates, bell ringers’ buckets, and directly into the hands of poor people. I rarely frequented a city so big that I couldn’t give at least something to almost every person in need that I saw. Once when we were going to the zoo in Chicago, I didn’t have enough cash to spare so I gave a homeless guy a couple of sandwiches I had in a cooler for our picnic lunch.

I am a softy, a pushover, as sympathetic as you can get. But I just want to drive my car in peace. I’d like to have little cards printed out that say, Give me the address of your organization and I’ll mail you a check. But please step away from my car. The light is going to turn green soon, and I’m outta here.

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