Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How do you know when to help?

An experience I had today reminded me a bit of this post from a few months ago.

This morning, I stopped for gas on my way to work. As I pulled up to the pump, I noticed a woman who seemed a little disheveled, but I think it was just because she had big frizzy hair, which given the current static in the air wasn't surprising. As I started getting ready to put the gas in my car, I heard a nearby voice say, "Excuse me?" I turned to look, and the woman I'd seen was standing on the other side of the open driver's side door from me. She said she was sorry to bother me, and that she was trying to make her way home to Arizona and that she had a full tank of gas (gesturing at a car parked at the gas pump next to the one I was at) but that she hadn't eaten in a couple of days. I told her I was sorry that I couldn't help her. She nodded and walked away. I had noticed in passing earlier that the car she was pointing to had a man sitting in the front passenger seat.

There was a part of me that did and still does feel bad for not helping her. If I was in a situation where I legitimately needed help, I would hope I could find someone who could assist me. However, for the same reasons as in my prior post, I have no way of knowing if someone really just needs help, if someone is using the pretense to scam for money, or if the person has more nefarious motives hidden. It seemed weird to me that she had a decent car (it wasn't new or fancy by any means, but it also didn't look really old or run down or beat up) and could manage to get a full tank of gas and yet not have the means to have gotten any kind of food in the past couple days. Knowing there was a man sitting in the passenger seat bothered me a little as well. I did notice that she went back and sat in the driver's seat of the car, and during the whole time that I was getting gas and later parked to get something from inside the convenience store, her car was still parked at the pump. I know she got out and wandered around at least once, since I saw her walk in front of my parked car. I don't know how long she was there doing that before I got to the gas station, but I'm presuming she was waiting for new people to come by so she could make the same request of them that she had made of me.

I've heard too many stories from people who have given money to a homeless person or someone wandering around asking for assistance for this reason or the other who then have it turned on them. Some have not reacted well to being given money when they didn't think they were being given enough. Some have even become violent or pulled a weapon of some sort demanding the rest of the money once the person has taken their wallet out to give them something. As a female by myself, I am conscious of what I'm capable of doing to defend myself, so I'm more cautious about the situations I allow myself to be in. If I was a burly guy, I might not feel the need to be as conscious, but then, if I'd been a burly guy, I wonder if she would still have approached me. And I was suspicious that she was doing the approaching rather than the man sitting in the passenger seat, but then, a woman asking is probably more non-threatening, which again triggers the suspicion gene in me.

And yes, I felt terribly guilty for making a purchase at the convenience store and driving away without giving her any help - her car was still parked at the pump. I just wish there was a way for me to tell when someone is really simply in need of a little assistance (which I would be fine providing), and how I can balance wanting to be helpful without putting myself in a possibly precarious situation.

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