When panhandled, what’s better, cash or problem solving?

1/18/2010

This is the story of Gas Can Jimmy.

I pick up strangers. Call it a family trait. My father grew up in a family of mechanics, and always carried a box of tools in his car, ready to help somebody out who might have broken down by the side of the road. I remember more than one snowy night, when my dad, with a car full of kids, would pull over to help some stranded motorist. I would trundle out to help hold a flashlight, or fish out a socket from the toolbox, while he would check wires, tighten hoses, scrape corrosion off of battery cables trying to fidget the car back to life.

Once, as a young teen, I remember learning an important lesson from him. He was braving a blinding snow storm to drive me to watch a high school basketball game. There were two kids leaning into the driving snow making their way through the street just ahead of the car. I told my dad to slow down as I looked to see whether I knew them. When I saw their faces and said, ‘nope, I don’t know them’, my dad stopped the car and answered ‘Why does that matter?’ So, we took the kids home, and I was late to the school function.

Most of the time, when I pick someone up, they’re just in need of a lift to the gas station. I remember one time, on the 401 highway in Ontario; I stopped to pick up a guy walking along with a gas can. I was on my way from Saginaw, Michigan to New England for a vacation. The guy was from Saginaw, as well, and we marveled at the coincidence.

Another time, I stopped to help a woman whose car had broken down along the freeway. She wouldn’t get in the car, so I offered her my cell phone. She was frightened, but needed help, so I told her I would leave the phone on the hood of my car and walk slowly away. It was like trying to feed a squirrel from your hand. She took the phone, but I kept my keys just in case I was the one being played!

This brings me to Gas Can Jimmy. That’s not his real name, I’m sure. Jimmy, that is. I made up the ‘Gas Can’ part. I’ve been panhandled since moving to Durham in 2007, and usually, I’ll help out a little. But Gas Can Jimmy is the first guy I stopped to help out. He was ambling down the highway, looking kind of disheveled, with an empty can of gas in his hand. So I pulled over and offered him a lift.

When he got in the car, I realized that this was a man who really, really needed help. He was filthy, and had a makeshift bandage wrapped around his hand, as if he’d been burned. “Mister, I can’t tell you how much this means to me”, Jimmy began. This is about where things stopped making sense. When he offered to shake my hand, he withdrew his hand quickly, saying he forgot, that he had burned the hand, but meant no offense.

I offered to take Jimmy to the gas station. “Looks like you’re out of gas”, I said, using my tremendous powers of persuasion. “My car broke down on the freeway, do you know where… is?”

He mentioned some place miles away. “That’s quite a walk,” I said. “Some guys picked me up and offered to help, but they only took me here and dropped me off”, Jimmy explained, detailing an interrupted mission of mercy. “They had to get to work, so here I am.”

“Let’s go to the gas station, and I’ll fill up your can and take you back to your car”, I told Jimmy. But he needed to make another stop first. “If you don’t mind,” he started to explain, “My wife is in the hospital. Do you know where… is?” I did, and it was in another direction, equally as far away from his car and where we were. “I need to take care of my wife, and I’m running late, so could you help me out?”

“OK,” I offered. “I can take you to the hospital if you’d rather go there.” Then, the story took another oblique turn.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to help someone who had trouble putting it all together. When I was in my late teens, I was attending Wayne State University in mid-town Detroit. I was between classes, and headed over to the Detroit Institute of Arts to wander around. I had been there occasionally as a grade school student, and enjoyed walking the halls for some unstructured education.

So, this grade school experience was on my mind one afternoon, when a woman came up to me and asked if I could help her out. “How,” I wondered.

“I’m with a school group, and our bus broke down. The kids are inside the museum, and I’m out here trying to get help before they’re done with the tour.” “Which school,” I asked. And she named my old grade school.

“That’s amazing,” I said. That’s where I went to grade school! Is…” and I named one of my favorite teachers was still there?” He sure was, she said. “How about…” so and so “Yep, they’re doing fine.”

“So, I have some tools in my car. It’s not too far away from here, and I’ll go grab them and meet you back at the bus.” And this is where things started to come apart. “Where is the bus,” I asked.

She said it was around the corner from where we were, but that she was sure I couldn’t fix the bus. “The bus driver told me that he needs some money to fix the bus,” she said. “Can you give me some money to get these kids home”.

Now, I’m not the most tuned-in guy in the world, but up until this point, I hadn’t really realized that this woman was panhandling. Now it came into focus. “I don’t really carry money,” I told her. “I’m a broke college student. But I think I can work on the bus.”

We had been at this probably 10-15 minutes, when she realized she couldn’t pry any cash loose from me. “Well, f**k you. Why’d you waste my time. Damnit,” she hissed, and stormed away, only to stop a few feet away, reformulate her plan and approach a man wearing a suit. However, this time the guy just kept walking.

I wondered whether her elaborate story had actually happened to someone once, and she just borrowed it. Or had this story earned her some money? It came apart when I questioned her about the details of her story. It reached some critical stage and it just fell apart, leading to the volley of cursing.

Similarly, I was approached by a man recently while I was walking. He was in a suit, albeit an ill fitting suit. He was a youth minister, and his car was in the shop. He needed $23 dollars to have one tire put on the car, to get back to the church so he could lead the kids in prayer. Not a dollar, or $25 dollars, $23.

I asked him where ‘was the car?’ He told me about a garage a few blocks away. I told him that I didn’t have cash, but I would drive him to the garage and pay for the tire with a credit card.

That wouldn’t work, it seems, because he had to meet the man about the tire at another location, and he would only take cash.

No point going any further with that story. No help needed, just cash. The encounter ended with a knowing smile, and the man ambled along to another potential good Samaritan.

Now I realize that sometimes, people in these situations are drug users. Sometimes, they’re mentally ill; sometimes both. But I’m fascinated by the story they develop. Is there any root in reality? Do they shape the story over time, adding elements which work and discarding ones that don’t? It must work occasionally, enough to keep them telling the story.

Back to my first encounter with Gas Can Jimmy. So, having picked him up on the freeway while he was toting an empty gas can, I offered to take him to a gas station. Instead, he introduced the fact that his wife was hospitalized, and he needed to go see her.

“OK, let’s go to the hospital,” I said. But Jimmy was about to go in another direction. “You see, sir”, he was polite throughout the entire encounter, “it’s like this. I’m not a beggar,” he began. I thought, ‘oh, boy, here comes the story’.

“It’s not that I’m a beggar, but I have a case of oil in the trunk of my car. I’ll sell it to you for $5.00.” This is a novel approach, I thought. “Ok,” I said. “Let’s get the gas, go back to your car and I’ll buy the oil from you.” I didn’t really need the oil, but at this point, I was hooked on the story.

But going back to Jimmy’s car wasn’t in the plan. “OK, sir, but first, I need to meet a man.” ‘OK’, I thought, ‘where’s this going?’ “I need to meet a man today who was going to give me a job,” this part of the story began. “He’s at the…. (a hotel nearby) and if I don’t catch him before he leaves, I won’t get the job.”

This part of the story didn’t have a request for money attached to it, so I asked if the guy had a phone number. We could call him and ask him to wait. “He doesn’t have a phone,” Jimmy said. “Well, what’s his name? I can call the front desk of the hotel and ask them to page him.” “I don’t know his name,” Jimmy said. “But he drives a Cadillac.”

So we went to the hotel, and cruised the parking lot looking for his nameless friend’s Cadillac. No go. Back to plan B, which was the hospital, or plan A, which was the ‘oil-for-five dollars’ plan. As we pulled out of the hotel, there was a diner on the right hand side. I pulled into the parking lot there and said ‘Well, Jimmy, what’s the plan.’ He started to verbally weigh his options. He need to pick up his wife, but he needed to get his car, but he needed to get gas, etc…

At this point, I started to feel a little less in control of matters. The more I tried to problem-solve for Jimmy, the more confused and worried he seemed to become. I volunteered ‘Well, let’s go get gas, and then go to your car.” No, that wouldn’t work, because he needed to get his wife. “OK, we’ll go get your wife.” But that wouldn’t work, because he’d be all the way on the other side of town without his car. “I’ll drive the both of you back to your car.” His wife didn’t know the car was broken, and he didn’t want her to worry.

So, we were at an impasse. “Jimmy, what do you want to do?” I’d been with Jimmy about 20 minutes now. “Well,” he started, eying the diner. “I’m really not a beggar; I’m just a guy who’s down on his luck. If you could see fit to give me $5.00, I’ll get the gas and go back to my car.” “But Jimmy, I’ll buy you the gas and I’ll drive you to your car, I said.”

“No, I couldn’t ask you that. Maybe you could just give me the money.” There it was. The elaborate story boiled down to its basic element. He wanted $5.00. “Are you hungry, Jimmy? I can buy you lunch at the diner? We’re right here.”

“No, he said. They won’t let me back in there.” So even though I said I didn’t have any money, I gave him five dollars and let him out the car. “Good luck,” I said, as he headed back toward the freeway.

But this isn’t where the story ends. Six months later, I was driving down another stretch of the same freeway, about ten miles further than my encounter with Gas Can Jimmy. I saw a well dressed man walking along the side of the freeway, carrying a gas can.

So, as is usually the case, I pulled over. I was a bit past the man, so he came up from behind and got in the car. As soon as he sat down, he looked at me and I looked at him and I thought, “This is Gas Can Jimmy” again. But what are the odds? He’s certainly cleaned himself up.”
Well, I wear a distinctive set of eye glasses, and even though I was dressed completely differently and had a new car, Jimmy looked at me and said, “You look like a guy who helped me out before?”

Yep, this was Jimmy. I said, “Is that right,” without answering him directly. “Looks like you’re out of gas.”

This time, we were about a quarter of a mile from a gas station. “Yep, car ran out back a ways. I’ve been walking for ever.” So I told him I’d buy him some gas. “Well, you see, it’s like this,” and he started with the case of oil in his trunk that he wanted to sell again.

By this time, we’d reached the gas station. “I’m sorry, I don’t need oil, and I don’t have cash, but I’ll fill your gas tank up for you,” I offered. “That’s really kind,” Jimmy said, “But I’d like to sell you the oil.” I told him I had no cash, and then he took a piece of paper out of his pocket and showed it to me. It was written directions to the hospital. “My wife’s in the hospital,” he started… “I said, wow that’s some ways away from here. I’m going in the opposite direction.”

As it happened, there was a road-side assistance truck sitting at the gas station. I pointed to it and said, “Those folks might be able to help you out.” Jimmy looked at me and said, “You’ve got to have one of their cards to get help.”

“I have one of those cards,” I told him. At this point, I think Jimmy realized the gig was up. That I wasn’t going to give him money, or perhaps that I was the guy he’d met before, and he just excused himself and got out of the car.

He was walking away from the gas station with the empty gas can as I pulled back onto the freeway.

A couple of things intrigue me about Gas Can Jimmy. The first is that I’m in the process of launching a new business, Cameron Knowles Creative Services (www.cameronknowles.com). I have a million different directions that I’m pursuing, sometimes simultaneously, and when I try to sit down and explain what I’m up to, I wonder if it sounds like Gas Can Jimmy’s story; a tad schizophrenic.

The other thing I wonder about Jimmy is that has built such an elaborate ploy to ask for cash. I understand that begging is difficult. I’ve worked in sales, and been in situations where my sales pitch boiled down to nothing more than a beg. And that’s with a good product or service. I can’t imagine just asking for cash straight up, without anything in exchange.

I imagine the types of services that might be able to help Jimmy out. He’d obviously had a hot meal or two since our last encounter, he wound had healed and he was better dressed. Yet something kept driving him out the door with his empty gas can, walking the freeways in search of cash. What was it? Insanity? Addition? Should I have just given him the money and been done with it? I don’t have a good answer, but I won’t stop stopping to help people