Monday, August 06, 2007

How to take a good deed and mess it up: my turn

Today was my turn.

I live in the Roxbury section of Boston. For those unfamiliar with the town, let's just say it's not exactly Nob Hill.

Late this afternoon, I went to Walgreen's Drug Store.

Actually, Walgreen's is more than a drug store. For example, in addition to my prescription, today I picked up a gallon of milk and some cleaning stuff.

But before I went in, Melinda caught me.

Melinda—not her real name: her real name is Sabrina—is a beggar. There's no other word to describe what she does to earn her daily bread. She sits, generally outside neighborhood stores, on one of those electric scooters that seem to be rapidly replacing wheel chairs, at least where I live, and begs. And she's pretty good at it, too.

And I'm usually pretty good at besting her.

The thing is, I rarely carry cash with me, especially if I'm going to Walgreen's. So, when I'm accosted by Melinda (or any beggar) I generally grin and ask if she or he accepts American Express. Then I usually ask if I can pick up some Walgreen-type thing for her or him while I'm shopping. Generally the answer to the latter is "no" but not always. And I usually get a laugh from the former. Beggars, I've found, most often have a sense of humor.

Today, Melinda was in great form, perched on her scooter and puffing a cigarette.

When she asked me for money, I looked at her butt and asked her where she'd got it. Not to be dubious or anything, but cigarettes are pretty expensive. Melinda nodded at an elderly gent, perched on a parking lot curb, enjoying a smoke himself.

"You give her that cigarette?" I asked.

He nodded.

"How come?"

"All I had on me, lady."

Okay, that made sense. I was about to give my little speech about credit cards to Melinda when I realized something and that something wouldn't go away.

I had a ten dollar bill in my wallet.

Meanwhile, Melinda's going on and on about how hungry she was and by the way it was "my turn."

I sputtered.

"Whaddya mean, `my turn?'" I demanded. (Trying on my stern look which evidently failed.)

"I mean," drawled Melinda "that you've been giving me this credit card !&#%!* for a long time now. Everybody else has pitched in. It's your turn."

This, frankly, ticked me off. There was no way Melinda knew I had the tenner in my wallet and besides, I don't like giving money to beggars. Food, yes. Money? Uh-uh. The no doubt unworthy (?) suspicion I generally harbor is that the dough won't go for food at all but instead for some adult entertainment-slash-beverage.

Turning my back, I muttered something about waiting until I'd got my shopping done and then we'd see. I got my prescription, picked up some milk and some odds and ends (all charged, by the way) and looked around the store. There was plenty of food things. Chips, cola, little milk cartons, snack thingies, know what I mean.

"Okay," I said to her back in the parking lot. "I can get you something to eat in Walgreen's. How about a Pepsi and some cheese and some trail mix, something like that?"

Melinda was having nothing of it.

"What I want," she said deliberately, "is the four dollar platter at the Yum Yum."

(For the uninitiated, the "Yum Yum" is the local Chinese joint.)

I hesitated. The Yum Yum, as Melinda well knows, doesn't take credit cards. I easily could've pleaded my case based on that fact alone except...except...

I had a tenner in my wallet. And, evidently, it was "my turn."

Exasperated, I headed toward the Yum Yum, Melinda keeping up and then some on that scooter of hers. She stayed at the door while I entered the place, the cook taking the order from her, not me. Several customers laughed. One lady said "honey, she's a nuisance...why waste your time and your money?" I laughed back replying "it's my turn." The lady nodded.

"Yeah, I know. I know. It was my turn last month and baby, that was enough for me."

Melinda wanted a strawberry cola but all they had was Mountain Dew so that's what she got. When I delivered the meal to her, she complained about that little detail, but I told her to deal with it. And then stalked off, grinning inwardly at the laugh I got from the Yum Yum patrons.

That laugh, as I know see it, was at Melinda's expense. But the cost was mine.

I could've—oh, I could've done it so differently. I could've been, at the very least, more gracious to Melinda. More gracious? I could've been gracious, period. I could've smiled at her with friendliness, not irritation. I could've opened her napkin for her. I could've chatted with her a bit more. I could've maybe set a better example for everybody involved.

Only I didn't. Yep, Melinda got her meal and that's about all she got from me.

God and Melinda gave me my turn. An opportunity, actually. And I blew it.

Odd. At the time I thought I was only blowing $4.50.