On my home from the office last night, a kid, about 10 years old or so, got on my subway car and announced that he was selling packages of cookies for a dollar to raise money to buy school supplies.
I’ve heard this song and dance before, of course: A kid gets on the subway car and announces that he or she is selling M&Ms for his or her basketball team, or so that he or she can stay off the street and go to college. It’s an easy story to fall for if you haven’t already heard it a million times, which I have, and why I’ve come to train myself to ignore the announcement, burying my head into my book, or whatever I’m reading on my phone.
I’m a sucker for children’s literary programs. Having books and great stories around me while growing up is the reason why I’m the person I am today. Books gave my introverted boyhood something to latch on to. They gave me dreams and sense of adventure—even if that sense of adventure bloomed in my imagination, and not actually in the real world. My family couldn’t afford to go on very many vacations while I was growing up, but I could go to Middle Earth or Narnia or become cast away on an deserted island any time I wanted. It’s why I give to Dave Eggers’s non-profit, and why I do a little volunteering every year.
When this kid walked around the car and politely asked straphangers to buy his cookies so he could buy school supplies and books, it got my attention—even if it was just a remix of that same song these kids perform throughout the year. So as he approached my section of the car, I waved him down.
“Kid, what do you need?” I asked.
“I’m selling these cookies to buy school supplies and books before school starts,” he repeated.
“Yes, but what do you need?”
“I’m getting off in a few stops and there’s a Staples and Barnes & Noble nearby. I’ll buy you what you need.”
“Ummm. Do you want to buy all the cookies?”
A few thoughts ran through my head. The first was that, okay, fine, this kid was not trying to earn money to buy books or school supplies. The “kid selling stuff on the subway” story has been covered several times by various news organizations, including an investigation by ABC News that showed that most of these kids are exploited by adults, and are given very little in return. They’re Artful Dodgers and Charley Bates and Oliver Twists working for Fagin.
The second thing that happened was that I had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde moment where I wanted to pull the kid aside and tell him that when a stranger offers to take you somewhere—even when it seems like the stranger has good intentions—you need to turn the stranger down because, well, for obvious reasons that our parents and teachers taught us when we’re kids: Stranger Danger.
He waited for an answer. By the look on the other subway riders’ faces, they also didn’t know what to make of me, and waited for my answer as well.
I opened my wallet and took out a five-dollar bill.
“Okay, you get five cookies.”
“No, I don’t need the cookies. Just take the money and try to do something good with it.”
The kid moved on to the next subway car. I got off the train a few stations later, and made my way home, shaking my head as I walked along. What a world.