The old woman asked if we could give her a ride down the road.
I looked toward my girlfriend, both of us weary after a hard day’s work. It was full night and we weren’t expecting this type of request, especially at a gas station filling up my car on a few meager dollars. Yet we smiled back at the old woman, our eyes squinting from the cold winter air. The old woman tensed from a frigid gust, tightening inside her hooded blue coat, her piquant eyes staring back at us with hopefulness under the humming sodium lights above the gasoline stench.
“I have to get to the Greyhound station downtown,” she said. “My family has a ticket for me to get back home to Florida.”
I saw her tired face and thought, She picked us. Two young people that looked honest and innocent enough to be approached and asked for favor in the cold night.
I opened the car door and offered her a place inside. She eagerly squished into the back of the car. Instead of worrying about how I’m going pay to drive a hundred miles to get to school the next day, I drove with a gallant heart that night, giving my girlfriend admirable glances at our shared charity. As a young couple, we felt proud of our open heart, ignoring the selfish side of aimless youth with attention affixed only to pop-culture. We were helping an old, homeless woman. Never had we felt more relevant to the needs of society.
We drove down the main road for about a mile when the old woman told us to stop next to a battered, graffiti-laden bench. A bus stop. My girlfriend and I, hesitant, asked if the old woman was sure she wanted to sit alone on the bench at night waiting for the bus to arrive. She insisted, getting out of the car promptly. My girlfriend and I looked at each other with uncertainty. We offered the old woman a few stray dollars we had left between us, which the old woman took without question. We then decided to pull over next to the bus stop and wait with the old woman, but she refused us and shooed us on, nearly demanding we leave. We drove off reluctantly into the night, feeling the strength of our charity wane to nothingness.
A week later, driving through the early morning, I saw that old woman again on an exit ramp by the interstate holding a sign: Homeless. God Bless the USA.
I drove up to the old woman and waved, feeling a strange embarrassment bloom inside. She gave no sign of recognition but stepped forward waving her sign at me.
“Excuse me sir,” she said, her white hair blowing wild as cars zoomed by us. “I’m trying to get to North Carolina. I only need another twenty dollars to get there. My son is having open-heart surgery and I need to see him, but my car broke down and it’s still in the shop.”
I had the words out of my mouth to say, “Do you remember me?” I took a hard look at her face to see again if she would recognize me. She had grown frustrated by my lack of response and had moved on, flashing her sign to the oncoming cars exiting interstate.
My girlfriend had commented a few days later that she saw the old woman with a group of other homeless people in the parking lot outside a Burger King counting wads of money. “She lied to us,” my girlfriend said scornfully.
It’s true. The old woman made up a lie to get a young, naïve couple to give her a ride to a rendezvous for the homeless.
You may have been approached by these folks. Their lies can be elaborate.
I’m so sorry to bother you but my wife is in the hospital and I just ran out of gas. I wouldn’t ask this of you, but I just need a few dollars to get down the road so I can get to the hospital.
They don’t hold you at gunpoint, but they prey on the compassion within your heart.
It’s been several years since that meeting with the old woman. I never saw her again. My girlfriend has since become my wife and we have an unspoken feeling of being betrayed by that old woman, and we’ve developed a distrust whenever we see the homeless out there, holding their signs, giving us their paltry statements of deceit.
Still, my wife and I have compassion. The heart is meant to have compassion, for now with age we also have perspective and a better sense of wisdom. Now we understand that whenever we choose to give, we do so for the sake of compassion itself. Whereas, when we were younger, we just wanted to give an old woman a ride home and some money so we could save her life.
Many of the homeless may lie and cheat to survive, but each homeless person is a unique story, perhaps not always wrought with hardship or misfortune. The lesson I hold is not to generalize them all into that same old woman so we’d believe never to trust a homeless person again — for many of them are telling the truth even when they lie. They are in desperate need of help.
I keep compassion in my heart despite any misgivings. I will not shut the door to compassion no matter how wronged. For in the end I understand that to give is to give for yourself, not for others.
Compassion is its own reward.