Just the other day I witnessed something strange, beautiful, sad, and, if I didn’t know any better, completely out of a movie scene.
The forecast has been hot and humid the past week here in New York City, and I’m pretty sure I left a substantial trail of sweat on my way to the air-conditioned coffeeshop down the road for some iced caffeine. And of course I wasn’t the only one with that bright idea, even though I managed to get a free table in a room almost filled to capacity. I sipped my iced coffee slowly, in a heat-induced daze, thinking things like, ‘I wonder how many establishments are playing a Bob Dylan song right now,” when a man entered and began passing out photos to each table. (He didn’t give me one, possibly because my table was furthest from the door, and due to the heat I was still wearing a significantly unapproachable scowl.)
I’ve seen this kind of thing before, though usually in airports and mall-type food courts. Someone would pass around pictures, usually of mangled or diseased children from third-world countries, and then ask for money. Almost always, these things are scams; the pictures were printed from the internet, and the collector used whatever money received for his/her own personal use.
Normally I would call this kind of scam pathetic, lazy even, if it didn’t work on me some years back. I was young and on my own in the world for the first time (and, perhaps not shockingly, inside a bookstore) when a girl about my age who didn’t speak much English approached me with a photo of sweatshop children. She held a sheet of paper, presumably with information about whatever cause she represented, but she didn’t refer to it once. All she did was point to the picture and say, ‘Please.’ To my embarrassment, it worked all too easily on me, and I gave her five dollars, thinking this is what a good person would do.
Needless to say, I haven’t fallen for such scams since. In the coffeeshop, I watched as the man went back to each table to retrieve his photos and attempt to get some money. To his credit, he had a speech prepared. Mostly he was cut off and shooed away, which of course is what I would have done to him.
At the last table sat a man, possibly in his late thirties, feeding ice cream to his infant child. I figured the last thing he’d want is be bothered by a scammer, insulting his intelligence and begging for money. When the scammer approached his table, he began his speech, but he stopped when the man with the child held out a five dollar bill for him to take. I watched in disbelief. You got took, I thought. But then this happened. After the scammer accepted the money, the man with the child said, ‘Sorry.’ He was, of course, referring to the photo of mangled children. Perhaps the scammer was caught off-guard, during which he briefly broke character with an automatic response, ‘It’s okay.’ Then, the man with the child looked right at him and said, ‘It’s not okay. It’s horrible.’ The scammer didn’t know what to say to that and left without another word.