Street smart, hard heart

City Diary : Michael Bornemann

January 16, 2002

IN A HURRY and hungry on a Friday night, I just wanted to get in the car with my Chinese food and go home.

But that woman wouldn't leave me alone. "Excuse me," she began, "I need to get across town by bus, and I don't ..."

"Where's the kid?" I interrupted. She looked genuinely surprised. "You know," I continued, "the kid you carry when you ask people for money at the Harvest Fair or the Safeway."

"Look, I don't know what you're talking about," she claimed. "I just want to find out which bus to take ... "

"Sure," I said. "Or where can you get medicine for your sick child, or where is the nearest church that gives out free food. And do I have some spare change? Right? You don't even remember how many times you've asked me for money - or what your stories were."

That night I just didn't have the patience to say, "I'm sorry, I'm all out of change," or "I can't help you," or some other lie of mine in response to some lie of hers.

As I closed my car door, her expression became an angry scowl. She made an obscene gesture against my windshield. Her appearance became so different, I had a moment's doubt that this was the woman who had pestered me in and around the Hamilton business district over the past 10 years.

Her modus operandi gave her away, I reassured myself.

Who but a panhandler would approach a perfect stranger like me with some sob story of dire circumstances for which spare change was the solution - though I hadn't let her get that far in the conversation?

Who but a panhandler would be so aggressive as to ask for my attention and aid, and to think I might stop, listen, empathize and help someone I didn't even know?

Who, indeed, but perhaps a person down on her luck, as you or I might be some day or night, with a legitimate need for assistance, hoping for common courtesy and maybe compassion from an arrogant stranger.

Today's writer

Michael Bornemann has lived in the Waltherson neighborhood of Baltimore City for 23 years. He serves on the boards of directors of the Harford-Belair Community Mental Health Center and Friends of the Workforce and Technology Center.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods, and welcomes contributions from readers.

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