I was getting ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins at Pear Tree, feeling a little uncomfortable and out of place. Ice cream parlors, with their brightly-lit, colorful interiors and excited children milling around experiencing the pre-sexual version of having their fondest wish fulfilled, tend to make me feel like I've just crawled out of the sewer, even if I don't look like I have. There's a kind of specifically American purity about them that makes me feel guilty for sullying them with the likes o' myself, but sometimes a fella just needs some ice cream.
Being in a somewhat depleted condition, I'd ordered a large and complex mixture of various ice creams, sauces, nuts, and toppings beginning with one of the glistening, lurid specialties depicted on the wall and customizing it to my own gluttonous specs with random and sundry confections from the toppings bar. I was elbows deep into the monstrosity, head literally swimming in sugar and endorphins and trying almost successfully to contain the orgasmic groans that kept bubbling up into my vocal apparatus, when a troop of raggedy-ass children jingled in, five strong. Clearly related, no more than a year separated any two succeeding ones, and they had an unkempt, feral look about them that I recognized from my days at the commune back in Colorado. These were kids who hadn't yet learned to fear adults or knuckle under to the usual childhood conventions. They looked strong and healthy, if a little grimy, and their hair existed in a more or less natural, untrained state. I surmised the brood was from one of those intensely rural families in town for supplies and their keepers had sent them over for ice cream while they got the necessaries at Albertson' s.
The lead urchin was a female of about 10 or 11, with a capable, take-charge look about her. She herded her sibs gently but firmly, moving skillfully around their perimeter like a border collie and administering minute corrective applications here and there.
They stood perusing the menu for a bit, chattering excitedly, then formed a circle as pockets were mined and funds unearthed. The discussion took on a hissing, agitated tone and the youngest, a pugnacious-looking lad in overalls with no shirt, spun around and stood, arms folded, with a resigned scowl on his face. Clearly, this family operated on a strictly Darwinian model, the younger ones receiving only such benefits as trickled down as overflow, and the sprite facing me had the look of someone who was about to get screwed yet again and was none too happy about it.
My duty was clear. I walked over to the group and proffered a fin as contribution to their cause. "You guys a little short?"
I said. I was pleased and impressed by their reaction to my gesture. They neither regarded me with suspicion nor went nuts with gratitude. The eldest plucked the fiver from my hand and said, "Thanks, mister." "Yeah, thanks, mister," chorused the rest, and the general attitude became gleeful once more.
I returned to my glutinous agglomeration and the kids began applying themselves to the pleasantly agonizing task of whittling 31 delicious possibilities down to one sweet reality. I was still doggedly shoveling it in when they trooped out the door, happily licking away. The littlest one, bringing up the rear, turned around and hoisted his cone at me as he walked out, and I saluted him with my spoon and nodded. No words were necessary in the brotherhood of ice cream.
Ten minutes later, bloated, reeling, and wondering why I ever thought eating that much ice cream was a good idea, I stepped back out into the sunshine. In the parking lot I saw the kids clambering into the back of a vintage Dodge Power Wagon. One of them saw me and said, "There he is right there!" The parents looked over at me, smiled, and waved. I waved back and, walking away, felt extremely pleased at the way things had turned out. They might have chastised me for interfering with their kids, or insisted on paying me back, but instead just graciously acknowledged a small kindness and went about their business. I, for my part, felt sufficiently rewarded with the "Thanks, mister," the cone salute, and a cheerful wave. Exactly the reaction a gesture like mine merited, and exactly the reason the story stays with me after ten years. I didn't do it as an invitation to intimacy, to incur indebtedness, or to elevate my personal profile as a humanitarian. I simply recognized and embraced an opportunity to grease the cogs of my tiny little corner of society, and averted a small disappointment in so doing. No — and I can't stress this enough — big deal.
But just as the ubiquity of smartphone cameras and the all- emcompassing immediacy of the Internet has turned every petty crime into national news, stoking the fires of Second Amendment demagogues and turning neighborhoods into armed camps, so too are citizens recording acts of basic human decency and nominating these people for sainthood. You may recall the case of the police officer who, after encountering an apparently homeless, barefoot man on the street, went into a shoe store and bought him a pair of expensive boots. The video reporting showed the cop on his knees, lacing up the poor, pathetic, no longer shoeless fellow. TV personalities literally cried as they reported the story, and the cop not only made the rounds of all the morning news programs, but received official recognition from the department and a humanitarian award. A lovely and heartwarming story, until you hear the follow-up.
Turns out the barefoot gent was not homeless at all, owned several pairs of shoes, and was just a crazy guy who liked walking around Manhattan with no shoes on. He sold the boots the very next day and was seen flapping his horny old tootsies at his usual post, where he told a reporter "I didn't ask for no God-damned shoes."
Or, more recently, the homeless man who used his last $20 to help a stranded woman who'd run out of gas. A kind and thoughtful gesture, to be sure. An appropriate response would have been a hug, an effusive thank you, and a later return of the money with perhaps a little extra, maybe a Starbuck' s gift card or something.
Instead she (the recipient) alerted the media, who immediately went into full canonization mode, falling all over themselves in an effort to impart a noble character to the man by initially referring to him as a "Vietnam vet," which was odd as he was clearly in his thirties, and started a crowdfunding page which raised nearly half a million dollars. Much was made of the fact that the $20 represented the sum total of his liquidity, but if you graph out the average homeless person's income you'll see a more or less flat line along the zero axis with a number of minuscule bumps up into the positive, never rising anywhere near to statistical significance and therefore effectively zero·. In other words, if your baseline is nothing, returning to nothing is not noteworthy.
So it's not the same as if he'd had $87,314 and given that away. I can ask people for $20 and eventually someone will give it to me. I have tested that theory exhaustively, I assure you. Try asking someone for 87 large, though, and you will be (correctly) perceived as insane.
Not to detract from the gesture; it was a fine thing to do and I applaud him, but the response was wildly disproportionate and I suspect will result in any number of negative consequences. Upsetting the balance and harmony of the natural order of things is never good, and an act like this is utterly inappropriate. If you're living on the streets, there is a better than 95% chance you are crazy, addicted, or both. Throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars and a God complex at someone like that is akin to giving a gun to a chimpanzee. He is probably not going to use it responsibly and prudently.
We — Homo sapiens sapiens — have evolved as a social species for whom altruism is crucial to our development and growth. While helping others may seem outwardly contrary to Darwinian survival, the truth is that being nice and chipping in is good for the species as a whole, and it feels good besides. So go ahead ask: "Can I help," and don't pass up an opportunity to do something Nice for someone who needs it. Just don't expect your life to change as a result, except incrementally as your service accrues and you become a fundamentally better human for it.