I look up, drop the front flap of the newspaper, quite startled to hear the small voice so close to my ear. I am deep in a story about justice in America, settled comfortably in a squishy armchair in a crowded Starbucks in Dallas.
It is Sunday morning, and I have come from church to read the paper and pass the time before meeting up with a friend who’s visiting from out of town. I am wound in my own thoughts, thoughts of the story and thoughts of the day and thoughts of my friend, when I’m jolted by the sound of the voice. “Excuse me.”
I look up to find myself staring into the eyes of a young boy. He is around eight, skinny, with messy brown hair and dark eyes. All this I see in a flash because my eyes are drawn to the white notecard he holds in his hands. It is a note, directed to me or anyone else in that coffee shop, a plea for food, something about cancer, the mention of a little brother — I do not read it, really, the words simply blur on the page. But I get the gist.
He is asking for help.
“Where’s your mother?” I say instinctively. Then I wonder if that’s the right thing to say. What if he doesn’t have a mother? What if he can’t understand me at all?
But the boy does understand and he does have a mother, or at least it would seem, because he gestures at a woman, frail and hunched, lumbering between the shoulders of the people waiting in line for coffee. She holds an identical white notecard, and pauses in front of a middle-aged man who says he has no cash to give.
As I see the boy motioning to her, I freeze. Fear and an automatic response kick in.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t help you. I’m so sorry.”
And as quick as he appeared, he is gone, swept out of the glass doors onto the rain-streaked streets of Dallas.
I sit there, numb, aware of the crinkled dollar bills in my wallet and my church down the street and the story I’d been reading about justice in America. I want to rise and follow them, but I do not. I know, even as I want to, that I will not.
Because the thing is, I am suspicious of the boy and his mother. I remember the story a tour guide once told me about a little gypsy girl in Spain. She pick-pocketed him and the tour guide, aware of the probability of such a thing, grabbed her by the arm before she could escape. In a flash, the little girl took off all of her clothes and stood there screaming. What could he do but let her go, wallet and all, lest he himself be accused of a crime much worse than stealing.
This story and others make me wary, make me afraid of being taken advantage of, make me want to protect myself before helping another.
But I do not want to be suspicious when the face of someone in need appears before me. For even if the little boy and his mother were scheming to get my money, that in itself puts them in a place of trouble, of spiritual and moral despair.
Faced with these kinds of situations, I would rather be like a person I know who jumps into action when someone is distressed, without regard for himself but only for the other. This person stops to help when a stranger’s car breaks down and automatically buys dinner for homeless men, no questions asked. I know there is a body of literature out there providing economic reasons not to help the poor and needy, literature that references things like incentives and personal responsibility and empowerment, and I do think such literature offers a modicum of truth.
But the face of that small child and the sound of his quiet voice remain in my head, and a thing inside me — call it God, call it my conscious, call it a well-off woman’s guilt — never wants someone vulnerable to disappear unreceived into an overcast city again.