I’m an avid walker. One of my favorite things to do is plug in my earphones and listen to my playlist while strolling along the streets of Manhattan. The earphones serve a dual purpose. They wash away the sounds of the city—allowing me to get lost in my own thoughts. They also give the impression to passerby that I’m not open for conversation (which is generally true). Get my music going and I manage to mentally isolate myself even amidst a sea of people.
I’ve had a few encounters though, when a stranger breaks my reverie. One late night in February, I decided to walk for a while instead of hopping onto the subway. It was cold. My breath came out in wisps as I wandered up Broadway with my earphones playing. Someone stopped in front of me.
“Excuse me… I’m sorry… Excuse me… I have anxiety,” said the woman to me as she nervously shifted her weight from one foot to the other. I hesitantly took out my earphones and paused my Spotify app. The desperation in her frantic eyes told me that she wanted something from me.
“I’m Brooke. I was on America’s Next Top Model. You can look me up,” said the woman, wringing her hands while she spoke. “I left my phone and wallet at my apartment in Brooklyn. I’m sorry to ask this, but can I have some money for a taxi?” I must have betrayed some indication of doubt in my eyes because the woman suddenly started to talk more quickly.
“I swear I’ll pay you back. You know the diner Tom’s? I know the owner. I’ll leave money for you in an envelope with them there tomorrow,” said the woman, still shifting her weight back-and-forth. I looked at her trembling in a thin black sweatshirt and clutching a cheap-looking chain purse. She was very underweight and pale with a gaunt face, lackluster brown hair, and yellowing teeth.
I had taken a psychology course about drug abuse during college. For the class, I had studied the effects addiction could have on someone neurologically, physically, emotionally, mentally, and so on. But this was my first time seeing serious drug addiction up close. Brooke looked like a crystal meth addict.
She kept on telling me a very elaborate backstory. I knew everything she was saying to me was a blatant lie. With so few people on the streets at such a late hour, she was probably running out of opportunities to get money. I had a feeling she wouldn’t give up until she got what she wanted. I ended up giving Brooke $30 just so she could stop wandering around outside in the cold. For some reason, I felt like it was something I should do.
After I gave her the cash, she effusively thanked me and kept on insisting that she would get the money back to me. Every time I told her she didn’t have to pay me back, she emphatically said, “No, no! I’ll pay you back.” She followed me for a while as if she were looking for a taxi and then she suddenly stopped to cross the street.
“Thank you! Have a good night!” She said to me, waving her hand. As she turned away, I saw a huge smile on her face. A smile of satisfaction. A smile of success. She believed she had fooled me. That she had made a brilliant story and I was some poor sucker who had fallen for it.
After Brooke left, I made my way to the nearest subway station and got home. As I took a hot shower, I kept wondering why I gave that woman money.
Why did I give an addict money? I could have given that money to someone who actually needs it. Or kept it for myself. She’s probably getting high right now.
Well… you don’t know that for sure. Maybe she was hungry.
Oh, who are you kidding? She’s an addict. She’s using your money to get drugs. If people knew what you did, they would tell you that what you did was stupid.
At that time, I was working freelance jobs and didn’t have a steady paycheck. $30 certainly wasn’t pocket change. I sighed as I stepped out of the shower and got ready for bed, hoping and praying that my money would be used for something good, not wasted on something bad.
I buried myself under my covers and wondered if I were cut out to live in a city where it probably pays to look out for oneself first and not care about others.
Damn it. I’m too nice to live in New York. Too soft.
I eventually stopped caring about the money, but I still sometimes think about that night and wonder if there’s a point when compassion becomes naiveté… or stupidity and if I’m cut out for the city. But I think I want to continue living life being as kind as possible, even if that means doing things people might find foolish.