Monday, January 9, 2012

Pay for performance

Maybe some of you can help settle an argu… versation Colin and I had recently.  It took place after we may or may not have been swindled by some mechanics who may or may not have fixed a problem that may or may not have exited with the car.  But we’ve vowed never to talk of this incident, so you’re spared the details.

So, as would naturally happen, we got to talking about street con artists -- who run the gamut from “fake” homeless to people with elaborate stories looking for a lot more than a dime.  

Two examples:

Colin saw someone at an interstate rest stop talking-- loud enough to hear but not loud enough to be considered crazy -- about a sick relative he was trying urgently to see. But now, you see, he was stranded at this rest stop with no more money and no way to get to them.  Time was running short. He was a tough looking guy choking back tears.  Some women who overheard this heart-wrenching tale, reached in to their pockets to help him out.  When they left, the man started this exact same “phone call” within the earshot of some different marks. 

When I lived in Philly, a common scam was for a person to ask you directions someplace. It would always be a place at least 4 modes of public transportation away.  You’d have to give this person the bad news that “No, you’re on Chestnut Street.  Chestnut Hill is about a 30 minute car ride from here.”   The person would then break down and cry.   Real tears!  She doesn’t have near enough money to get there and she’s been trying all day.  Now she is sobbing and you’re standing there awkwardly.   And just like that, you’re inextricably tied in to her drama as the barer of the tear-inducing news.  You have a few bucks to spare, don’t you?  She’s crying because of what you just told her fergoodnesssakes! 

My stock answer for why I often end up giving to one of these more thespian pan handlers is that even if their elaborate tale of woe was totally fabricated, it was a pretty good show.  There were tears and emotion.  It was better than Cats. 

 So, I justify giving a few bucks for a good performance.  Not because I’m a sucker.  Never that!

Plus, you just never know.  What if those tears weren’t fake?   Could you really deny a person with such a sad story a dollar?

Anyway, Colin thinks all of this is mildly ridiculous.  He thinks giving to con artists of this ilk just encourages them to rip off other people.   People who might actually need that dollar more than you. 

Plus, you’re rewarding a cheater.   You’re not paying for a performance, you’re paying for a lie.  And where does it end?  The grandmother who gives her life savings to a fake Nigerian prince would hardly argue it was “worth the performance.”

He makes a good point.

Here’s my counterpoint:  Excluding the major league con artists who wipe out people’s savings, generally, when you give a few dollars, it’s to someone who needs it more than you do.  I can’t say they won’t spend it on liquor, but I also can’t say I wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing having walked a mile in their shoes. You just don’t know.  Yes, you “earned” your dollar the old fashioned way.  But, let’s be honest, you had some help.  We all did. 
Am I being naive?  Too forgiving?  What do you think?

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