Sunday, March 04, 2007

Library Honeymoon Over?

No, I'm still crazy about the place. It's my new office. I'm still claiming it, one Dewey decimal at a time. But yesterday it seemed noisier than usual. I heard more moms telling their kids to "shut up." And the movie I wanted wasn't in. I guess that last one could happen at any library.

The most annoying thing that's occurred to me took place yesterday, when two tools tried out the old "can you give us some gas money?" routine. If my computer wasn't on my lap, I might have thrown them over the balcony. How much money can that scam really make people, anyway? It just can't be as lucrative as checking pay phones for quarters or placing "tiny classified ads" in newspapers. What idiots.

I've been the target of this Abbot and Costello routine at least five, and I think six times in the six years I've been in town, and the cultural anthropologist in me has noticed the following motifs for this particular example of alcoholic/crackhead folklore:

1. They need to get back to Indianapolis, Chicago, or the hospital.
2. They have been to the churches but they got turned away.
3. They went to the mission, but nothing could be done for them.
4. This is not a scam.

Some variations have included the claim that they had "just been jumped" and I could call the cops to confirm their story. Another claimed that he was our neighbor and "for gosh sakes, my wife walks our dog by here every day."

What's tough is keeping your cool and not throwing them off the balcony. I usually try to just turn into a robot that says "no" a lot with no inflection in my voice. I've thought about using humor, like saying "damn, I was just about to ask you for the same thing, man." Or maybe I could say "hey, you missed the part about getting turned away from the churches." But you never know what will set some people off. My brother says the next time he gets this, he's going to offer them some actual gas from his lawnmower can to see what they do. I need to think about this so I can be ready next time to do something more than the effective but dull "just say "no" plan.


tsea said...

My single goal for tomorrow is to get to the library. I wish I hadn't spent my last dollars on breakfast with friends this morning, for I wanted to try out the cafe that I understand is there.

sarahjane said...

one of our friends had this happen to him at a gas station a year or so ago. then, a few months later, had the same guy try to pull the same "out of gas" scam on him, and he called the guy out. maybe you should just start saying, "you already tried that scam on me, man" and see what they do. last time, Wes offered to go jump the guy's car (that was supposedly stuck on the highway), and his story suddenly changed. imagine that!

Oden, Miles said...

Oh me, oh my. Yeah--it's the white guy who wears the huge puffy black zip-up winter jacket, who always totes the younger black guy with him. If I had a nickel for every time he hit me up for some monies...
On Saturday, I was walking in to Henry's and he pulled the "Hey man, my car just broke down, we need to get back to Indy, can you help me?"--so I told him that the Peerless Cleaners across the street not only had dry cleaning, but free shuttle buses to most major cities. SO...of course this couldn't POSSIBLY be the end of the story, seeing as I just ATTRACT freaks. Not two hours later, I'm meeting some people at the Brass Rail--and what do you know, there is the Odd Couple saying, "Hey man, we just ran out of gas..."---I just roll my eyes and am like, "are you serious?" and he's like, "yeah, yeah man--help us out?" and so I'm like, "Man, you've run out of gas in Fort Wayne like 4 times in the past month man, it's time to change the story up--seriously, if you change the story up, I'll give you a couple of bucks for creativity".


Mr. Hill said...

That's the duo! You're right, I would pay just for the chance to hear a new story--maybe the mission could sponsor a writing contest.

LetsGoThrow said...

I saw those guys walk out of Las Lomas once without paying. The only time I ever gave that white dude money was when he helped me push my Miata out of a snowbank at Muncie's.

Mr. Hill said...

This is amazing--don't they remind you of Bubbles and his sidekick from The Wire? I might be starting to like these guys.

LetsGoThrow said...

If you think those two are amazing; check out my favorite Chicagoan - he used to hang out by K's building every day to watch the ABC news taping and wave at the boats on the river.

Oden, Miles said...

Ha--it does remind me of Bubbles. We should get them a little cart, so they can start a "downtown market". It'd be much more effective.

LetsGoThrow said...

Have you seen the Crayola Explosion commercial with Animal Collective in the background? Crazy things, crazy.

Mr. Hill said...


Michelle said...

My immediate reaction has often been the same as yours, but recently, I've started to question that. In South India a couple of years ago, I spent a few days staying with a Muslim family, who had opened their house to me and whose company I enjoyed a great deal. One afternoon there was a voice at the front window and the wife stopped what she was doing in the kitchen and went to the front door with a few coins, dropping them into the waiting hands of the man standing there. The man was followed by many more professional beggars, who we could hear moving throughout the neighborhood, stopping at house after house. When I asked my host about it, she laughed and explained, "We are Muslim. We truly believe this to be our duty. When asked, we give something. What we have, we must share. We can do it. We feel good in doing it. It is part of the circle of our faith.”

I had found her to be honest and direct in our conversations, and I took her at her word. This was a regular part of her weekly routine – the Thursday afternoon giving. Institutionalized in much the same way the panhandlers are here, much more so actually.

Until that time, I had usually been saying “no” to the frequent requests for money on the busy Indian streets, thinking I would unleash a torrent of requests by giving in, but I decided to follow her lead. I began to carry coins in my pocket for that purpose. The requests were no more frequent, I think, after I began handing out a coin when asked.

I have thought about it since, but had not been called upon to directly apply the experience since returning from India, until a couple of months back, on a cold winter night, pretty late, when there was a knock at my front door. Home alone, I opened the door to a tall, dark man. He told me he and his family lived in some nearby apartments and that there was a problem with maintenance and they had to leave the apartment and he was trying to come up with the extra money to stay in a hotel and could I spare some?

My immediate reaction, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any to spare.”

I don’t, really.

“Thank you anyway,” he said.

I watched through the window as he approached my neighbor’s house, was turned away, and then the second neighbor. Again, he left empty handed. In my head I could hear my neighbor’s muttering as he closed the door.

On our street the man’s aged, American sedan sat idling, a woman hunched in the front. He approached the window, speaking to her. I couldn’t hear what they said, but as I saw them talking to each other it came back to me, the gentle assurance of my host in Mysore.

What must be happening in your life to get you to approach a house at night and knock on the door and ask for help? And then the more real question, which my “no” instinct hadn’t let into my mind until that moment. What if their story was true? What if they really needed a hotel to keep them warm on that cold night? Not a night to sleep in your car. Not a night to be without food.

What had happened to me, to us, to all of us, that we couldn’t believe that question easily? That we have hardened ourselves to each other that much? “Sucker someone else,” we say to ourselves. True in some cases, but in all? My god, I thought. That’s not the point. It doesn’t matter, really, if they need the hotel or not.

I grabbed my purse and dug out my money, frantic that I would be too late. It felt suddenly like a test. The man had stepped up to my door and I had failed myself. I had failed humanity. I dashed outside in my slippers, “sir.” I said, moving toward them at their car. “I found some after all.”

He threw up his hands, and rushed toward me on the sidewalk, taking me by the shoulders and hugging me. “God bless you,” he said, “god bless you.”

I have since been reminded, looking at our country, of the immense gulfs that exist here. According to Census figures - which miss counting many of the poorest families, especially – in 2000 more than 17 million households in this country made less than $15,000 a year. That’s 16% of the population. That’s rock bottom poor. That’s no credit cards, no $20 in your wallet for an emergency, and no money for hotels on dark nights. Probably no coffee at the gas station either. And good chances are, you came from a family with similar circumstances. You learn what you’ve seen. There are not a lot of options, for many people. Circumstances have not always presented change. And one of the last things to go? Hope for change. Belief that it is possible. There are now whole generations that have grown up without that.

Gas or not, money for smokes or whatever. Isn’t that what all of the environmental mess is about too? The CEOs stealing from their companies. And the rest of it? Not that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves. But isn’t there a lot of the same, more of the “it’s mine, whatever damage it does, I’ll have my piece of it.” And “I can’t do anything to help you.”

I guess the answering with “yes” gives me, at least, a glimmer of hope for myself. Maybe a glimmer of hope for someone on the receiving end too, that they don’t always get more of the same. Sucker or not. And I do know this: you give, you get.

Mr. Hill said...

That's a great story, you changing your mind and catching them like that. That's a well known scam, by the way--that same couple has been to my house twice [kidding!]

I'd like to think I would have done the same in that situation, or at least felt really guilty the next day. In your situation, though, you had to see some evidence of sincerity before the switch went off. I'm not questioning your generosity or anything, but with the two guys I saw at the library, it's not their lack of apparent need that gets me so much as the duplicitous way they go about trying to fill that need. Even if it's to put their kids in Fruit Loops, the scam of it would make me a sucker to give in. In India, at least, they just knock and say, well, probably nothing. All they have strength to do is knock, probably.

Michelle said...

I was so proud of myself for signing up so I can post comments, but I've been going back and forth trying to verify my account again for twenty minutes and lost my comments, again! OK, maybe it'll work this time ...

I think at the library, it's kind of like a little kid, asking to see if they get lucky. When he visits, Pike asks, "Can I have ice cream for breakfast?"

I too don't always hand over the quarter at the library. "Not happening," I say. And the couple who stopped at my house, very possibly, was out scamming. Who knows? Oh well. I feel better, anyway, with my new attitude. Less control, more possibility.

And I love the look on Pike's face when I say "sure."

acoolbreeze said...

Hi, i stumbled across this site because my fiancee and I (both library science students) are thinking about spending our honeymoon visiting libraries around the country. That's obviously not what your site is about.

Mr. Hill said...

Best wishes for you on the occasion of your nerd wedding.