The Sunday Edition·Personal Essay

How an encounter with a panhandler changed the way I think about generosity

Do you have a personal code of conduct for dealing with panhandlers? Giving, not giving. Yes, to people with pets. No to the young and seemingly able-bodied. A limit each day. Coins not bills. Nothing at all? Most of us fashion rules for ourselves. And then, every so often there are people or circumstances that put them to the test.
A homeless person is pictured panhandling on the street. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

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He didn't look like a con artist. 

He was tall and gangly, in a t-shirt and shorts, carrying a backpack — the basic student getup. He approached a bit hesitantly as I pulled into my laneway. "I wonder if you can help me."  

His story went like this. He'd dropped his girlfriend off nearby and had locked his keys in his car. He had a gathering at a professor's house that evening, but needed his car to get there and didn't want to go dressed as he was. That rang true because he certainly wasn't dressed in go-to-the-professor's-and-make-a-good-impression clothes.

So, he said, he had to catch a bus to his mother's house in Kingston's west end, grab a second set of keys, return by bus, retrieve his car, change his clothes, and get to his prof's house by eight o'clock.  His problem was he didn't have bus fare.  Not a penny.  But, I asked, don't Queen's students ride free on city buses? Oh yes, he said. But you need your student card, and he'd left his wallet in his apartment, which he couldn't get into because, right, his keys were locked in his car.

"Why not get some money from your girlfriend?" I asked. He would, he said, but he'd just dropped her off at the corner and hadn't noticed which house she'd gone into.

His story was so convoluted that I asked, "You're not making this up, are you?" He looked genuinely taken aback. And mentioned, twice, that his mother was a Queen's professor as if to say "Look at my bloodlines! I cannot tell a lie!"

Recounting this now, it's clear that certain details didn't quite add up. Why, if he was just dropping his girlfriend off, had he gotten out of his car at all, let alone locked it with his keys inside? And where was the car anyway? I didn't see any parked nearby. But, I didn't question him about any of that. It was all just ridiculous enough to be true. After all, who hasn't lost their keys or their wallet, invariably at the most inopportune time?

So I gave him what change I had, about $3, and concerned that this might not cover two bus fares, I went into the house and got him another toonie, encountering my wife who asked what was going on. Normally a more generous soul than I, she was immediately suspicious, and whispered "Don't give him that." But I did.

Thanking me effusively, he promised to return with a $5 bill that evening. I had just a flicker of puzzlement when he strolled away at a leisurely pace, and not in the direction of the nearest bus stop.

You can guess the end of the story. I wasn't surprised when he didn't return that night, but, foolish me, I fully expected him to show up in the next day or two, bearing thanks. And $5. It never happened.

Checking the Queen's web site, I couldn't find his mother, the supposed professor. But the other prof he'd named was listed. I considered phoning him and asking if, in fact, he'd held a get-together that evening, and if he had a student fitting the description of my culprit. But I'd have felt foolish explaining how "He stole bus fare from me!" Of course, it wasn't just the loss of $5 that bothered me. It was the fact that I'd been played for a sucker.

Doug Bowie on the limits (and gifts) of generosity. (Submitted by Doug Bowie)

"Live and learn," my mother would have said, but what, precisely, was I to learn from this? "Students are jerks?" "There's a sucker born every minute?" And this was my minute? The incident seemed too slight to support any weighty life lesson. But it stayed in my mind.

A few days later, outside the LCBO, I encountered two earnest young guys in Queen's jackets trying to raise money for "orphans in Africa." Or so they said. Maybe the previous encounter had soured me on panhandlers — student panhandlers in particular. So I cracked, "Is the money really going to Africa? Or into your pockets to buy beer?" They looked crestfallen, and I drove off feeling a bit cheap.

Of course, we regularly encounter these situations. People sitting huddled on a dirty sidewalk. Maybe a scruffy sign saying "Spare change?" Situations which require a tiny moral calculation each time, weighing "they need it more than I do" on the one hand with "they could earn an honest living if they wanted to" on the other. So what do we do? Usually, like most, I'll avert my eyes and quickly pass by.

Generally, I prefer panhandlers who sing or play for their supper, and for them I'll toss a coin into the hat. But it seems unreasonable to expect everyone to be able to knock off a swinging version of "Autumn Leaves" on the sax. Maybe just being cold and broke and alone should be enough.

Another evening. A raw, fall chill in the air. I was again going into the LCBO.

"Spare some change?"

He was standing there in the dark and cold — a slightly grizzled guy, much more likely to have attended the School of Hard Knocks than Queen's. I stopped, but fishing in my pocket I found I had no change at all. Slightly embarrassed, I apologized.

"No problem," he said.

When I came out lugging a box of wine, I was hoping he wouldn't still be there. But he was. "Have a nice evening," he said. I wrestled the wine into my car, hesitated … and went back.

"Have you got any change?" Me speaking.

He looked confused. I was asking him for change? Wasn't that his line?

"I'll make you a deal," I said.

I took out a ten.

"Give me five back and it's yours."

His puzzlement gave way to a slight smile. He dug out a handful of change and started handing me quarters and dimes.

After a few I said, "That's fine."

"No, no," he said. "I've got it."

And he insisted on counting out $5 exactly. Maybe he liked the idea that it wasn't like panhandling any more. It was a business transaction.

I gave him the ten.

We exchanged well wishes and I went on my way, our transaction completed. But if it had been a transaction, what had been exchanged? He'd got the five bucks and I'd got — what exactly? Nothing tangible but … something.

And, sure, there's a sucker born every minute — and call me one if you like — but for some reason I felt good about it.

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