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Dogged by Conscience: What's better--to give or to be taken?

The Thief That Keeps on Giving

By Jason Kirby

ONCE UPON a frosty December afternoon last year, I stepped out of the San Jose Museum of Modern Art and onto the sidewalk adjacent. An old man in ratty clothes sidled up to me, telling me in a loud and uncomfortable voice how much I needed one of the homeless newspapers he was selling. Unsure of how much solid journalistic content I'd find within, but looking to get this man off my back, I told him I could give him a dollar for one.

As I reached into my wallet, I carelessly allowed him to glimpse a few of my other bills. Suddenly, his eyes grew wide and pleading, stretching the edges of his sunbaked forehead into a rough road-map of concern.

"Can't you help a guy out just a little more, 'specially this time of year?" he slurred, getting up in my face. "How's about a fiver?"

When I told him the truth--that I didn't have a $5 bill--he assured me that one of his newspaper-hawking cohorts could make change for one of my larger bills. And then, in truly the most blindingly naive moment of my life, I agreed, handing him a twenty.

I watched with increasing anxiety as this man walked the few yards over to his companions, spoke briefly with them and then headed toward Market Street at a quick clip.

"Take it easy, dude!" he barked at me over his shoulder, waving the twenty in the air. A moment later, he vanished in the crowd.

I stood there, my feet glued to the pavement like a human traffic island as holiday shoppers rushed by me on both sides. Heart racing, sweat beading on my forehead, eyes pried open, I scanned the sidewalk ahead for the figure, but he was already gone. At first, I thought I was feeling anger, but no: pure excitement; white-hot energy. It boiled up and down my spine, sending sparks of adrenaline into my feet.

I began to walk, slowly yet purposefully, in the direction my con man had headed, with no intent of catching up with him. At a crowded intersection, I came upon one of those Salvation Army bell ringers, a middle-aged man dressed in red presiding over his coin kettle. I dropped a few quarters in, to his robotic "Happy Holidays." He didn't make eye contact, and he looked a little jaundiced. It gave me pause.

What must that job be like? Stand on a corner and ring a bell designed to jangle people's nerves, then stare blankly ahead while they pretend not to notice you. One's very purpose as a bell ringer is to lodge guilt in the minds of holiday shoppers, all without saying a word. Guilt for a good cause, I might add.

But there is something so self-flagellating about the whole scene of the bell ringer: the drab uniform, the immobility, the hand cramps and tinnitus that surely follow each shift. His own silence in deference to the bell almost seems to say, "I feel bad about making you feel bad, but that's just the way it is, and let's get on with it."

The money goes into a cup, the cup goes into a bigger cup held by some other guy who used to ring bells until he got carpal tunnel. The bigger cup gets deposited into a bank account by someone who rang a bell once but really felt he was above it. And then it gets divvied up by administrators who've never rung a bell in their lives, unless it was at the counter of the dry cleaners.

So, what's Biter saying here? We'll take the street hustler. He doesn't act like he cares about us. He has no place in the corporate structure. He'll never take self-improvement courses or read anything even closely resembling "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff." And you know he'll never fritter that twenty on overhead or administrative expenses or tax accountants. It goes right to the guy who needs it most.

And how could we forget his jubilant "Take it easy, dude!" as he fled. Somehow, there was genuine caring in his voice, even if it was just his own desperation.

Maybe that's why, as I turned east and began the long walk toward the Caltrain station, I felt truly happy for the first time in days. (OK, weeks.) The bottom line: I had a true and original human interaction. For once a man had the balls to grab what he needed from me, like a wild dog in the African veldt, like a golden retriever at a barbecue, instead of slowly extracting it with sterilized tongs one molecule at a time. This man gave me a gift I hadn't expected: perspective. Long may he run.

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From the December 19-25, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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