Last Sunday was one of those unbelievably perfect early fall days where there’s two clouds in the sky, a cool breeze, minimal smog, and all it’s all you can do not to run down the street shouting, “Look how amazing this weather is! Why do any human beings not live in Southern California!?” I was keeping it under control, walking through a supermarket parking lot, when a young black man in a collared shirt ran up to me holding a binder.
“Excuse me, sir! Do you have a moment to talk about education?”
People holding clipboards in supermarket parking lots are the 21st century equivalent of lepers – we go to great lengths to avoid them, outright ignore them when they speak to us, and if given the opportunity would unite across party lines to banish all of them to remote colonies on islands. Being guilt tripped by a GMO activist is probably less of an ordeal than leprosy, but it's still not what I want to do when I'm on my way to buy toilet paper, which is why I try very hard to craft the impression that I don't have a moment to talk about anything.
Sunglasses are my first line of defense – good luck making eye contact now, asshole! I also make a point of always wearing ear buds when I go to the store – even if I’m not listening to music – so I have a good excuse to ignore people without looking like a jerk. The last line of defense is an almost aggressively vacant stare, reminiscent of Val Kilmer in Heat...
...with a little bit of Rust Cohle thrown in for depth.
Working together, these three things are a formidable deterrent to human interaction. It’s a relief, because as someone who is generally harmless looking and also generally polite, I used to be preyed upon all the time by Clipboard People and talkative strangers. Now nobody bothers me. It’s like I don’t exist until I want to.
But this guy with the binder completely blitzed all of my defenses. I’d never seen anything like it. He darted out from between a couple of parked cars and zig-zagged directly in front of me, so I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen him. He talked loud enough to drown out the music that would have been playing if the ear buds I was wearing had been plugged in. And then he planted himself inches away from me, boxing me in against the wall of a Chase Bank and leaving me unable to bolt.
“Sir? Sir can I talk to you about college, sir?”
This guy is good. I glumly pulled out my ear buds.
“Yeah? What’s up?”
He launched into a halting, over-rehearsed speech.
“My name is Jerome and I am a culinary student at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College,” he began, holding up his binder to display the school’s logo pasted to the cover above the words RESTAURANT PLAN, written in sharpie. “I just received a partial scholarship to Howard University in Washington DC...”
No, you know what? This is good. You were getting cocky, Truman. You thought you were impenetrable.
“…where I’m going to study business so I can pursue my dream of opening my own restaurant.” At this he held up the binder again, flipping the cover open to reveal that yes, there were several pieces of paper inside. He jerked it around a few times and closed it before my eyes could focus on any of the words on the pages. “And I’ve been here since 6:00 AM trying to collect donations to pay my way.”
You know what you need? A backpack. Or maybe a duffel bag. Something just large enough that it could plausibly have an Uzi inside. Nobody, repeat, nobody will talk to you if they think you’re about to go on a shooting spree.
“And I gotta tell you, I’ve been out here all day and I haven’t made anything so far. And people have been real mean to me too. And I just hope you’ll give me something to help me out and be the first person to donate to me today after I’ve been out here in the sun since 6:00 AM.”
I had known he was full of shit since three paragraphs ago. He had the remains of a heroin sore on his nose, on closer inspection his binder was full of dirty crumpled paper he’d pulled out of the garbage, and somebody who’d been awarded a scholarship to Howard University would be making his point much more eloquently, and without a heavy guilt trip at the end.
I happened to have a $10 bill with me, which I pulled out of my wallet and gave to him.
“Oh man, God bless you.” He said, already moving away from me in his haste to buy $10 worth of drugs.
“Yeah, have fun at school.” I said, tucking my ear buds back in.
I don’t give money to panhandlers, largely because The Atlantic told me not to. I made an exception for this guy, even though it was abundantly clear that he was lying to me to buy drugs, because I respected how much thought, preparation, and stagecraft he’d put into this drug seeking lie.
Was it season 2 of Battlestar Galactica? No. But he made a much stronger case than somebody begging from a tarp spread on the sidewalk or standing with a cardboard sign at a freeway offramp. He took the time to come up with a story and put together a prop that was fairly convincing at a glance. And he was so committed that he forced a conversation on the guy who’s stymied thousands of Greenpeace activists and mall kiosk salesmen.
As far as I’m concerned, that guy earned my $10, no matter what he spent it on. Even the master of avoiding human contact must be gracious in defeat.