Never pass up a good story

I have long advocated one-on-one charitable donations to needy panhandlers.

Meganational charity organizations are, of course, constantly telling us that they need our financial support, but a guy who’s down-and-out on the sidewalk probably needs our immediate assistance a whole lot more than does a multimillion-dollar charity with more employees than the population of British Columbia.

Plus, when you share your surplus cash with a panhandler, you also may be fortunate enough to hear a fine piece of truly inspired storytelling.

Sure, some unimaginative panhandlers will hit you with a rather generic “Hey, can you help me out here? Spare some change?”

But others will launch into colorful tales that make the ancient bards of Ireland seem like rather boring watercooler drones at Consolidated Camcrusher Corp. in Duluth.

Consider, if you will, the tale I was told on a windy Sacramento street corner a few days ago.

A young woman ran up from a nearby parking lot and, waving her arms frantically, exclaimed “I need your help!”

OK…

“You know that thing in the engine that’s part of the car? The head gasket – that’s the gasket under the head in the engine? Well, I blew my head gasket – you know, that gasket in the engine? And they towed my car away while I was looking for a phone and my kids are waiting at the bus stop on 167th Street and I was supposed to get them but the head gasket in my car got towed away and I need bus fare to 167th Street so I can pick up my kids – about $18 should do it…”

I admit I wasn’t too clear at first whether the distressed young woman was asking for assistance with auto repair, child care or public transportation, but it was abundantly clear that there were some holes in her story – the largest of which was the fact that there is no 167th Street in Sacramento.

I thought of shouting “Aha!” and pointing out the obvious flaw in her tale, but I had to admit it was a pretty good story and she must have really needed the money to painstakingly craft the saga she’d presented for my consumption.

(Besides, she didn’t exactly say the 167th Street bus stop in Sacramento. Maybe her kids were waiting in, like, Scranton or Portland or somewhere…)

It was, I decided, a $20 story if ever there was one.

On the other hand, the simplest explanations are sometimes the best – and also the most easily believable.

I recently encountered a refreshingly candid panhandler along the edge of a busy freeway offramp in Concord.

Clutched to his chest was a torn, rectangular cardboard sign upon which was written in easy-to-read block letters: “Homeless – Need Beer!” above the drawing of a smiling happy face.

How can you resist a sign like that? Honest and to the point, the guileless message said it all in the clearest possible language.

Admittedly, the guy could have been a thirsty, $500,000-per-year commodities trader who’d inadvertently left his beer money in his Mercedes, but that didn’t seem too likely.

Besides, if I ever found myself homeless, I’d probably want a beer, too. Maybe a couple of ’em…

Originally published April 27, 2003