WWYD: Eavesdropping

In this installment of “What Would You Do,” what you’d do if you overhear that a person is strapped for cash. Here’s Julie:

I pretty much have a blanket policy not to give money to people asking for it on the street, because I don’t know what they’ll use it for and I would rather give them food. (Or because I’m miserly and distrustful. It’s open to interpretation). But there have been a couple of instances, both train-related, when I have been eavesdropping on people in public places, like you do, and felt compelled to help them with the monetary woes they were talking about, even though it was kind of creepy of me.

The first time was when the train conductor told a girl farther up in the car that she didn’t have enough money to make it to her stop, and she’d have to get off at the next one. When the conductor got to me, I asked how much money she needed to get to her stop, and gave it to him.

The second time, I was eating in a McDonald’s in a train station, and I overheard a man on the phone who sounded like he was calling several different relatives, asking them to wire him $12 so he could buy a train ticket home. I also overheard him say he hadn’t eaten all day, so I gave him $15 so he could get a hamburger or something, too.

Julie’s actions are very kind, and I would like to believe that I’d do the same thing in those situations. I think I’m more sure about it in the situation with the young woman. With the man, I probably would have tried to strike up a conversation with him about his circumstances (if I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere). I would have wanted to take him to the counter to pay for his meal, and then walked with him to a booth to buy him a ticket. Like Julie, I feel a lot better about buying strangers something tangible than just giving them money. The thing is, when I’m riding the train, or eating takeout alone, I often have my headphones on, which means I might not have heard these conversations in the first place.


Email me your WWYD experiences to me with “WWYD” in the subject line. See previous installments.



10 Comments / Post A Comment

zou bisou (#1,637)

This girl sounds really awesome.

I got on the train once after spending the day in CT with a friend, and realized too late that I had left my wallet in her car. A kind man next to me offered me a punch on his card; i was so touched by that. (I had to get off at the next stop anyway because i realized i wouldn’t be able to make it home from grand central without a subway card, but it was still very much appreciated).

I’ve bought a subway card for a mother and her 3 kids who were trying to get to a shelter and didn’t have the cash, which I guess is kinda similar? So i guess i would do that; but i probably would have given the money straight away to the girl because i am less of a saint than this girl and wouldn’t want to shortchange myself the warm and fuzzy feeling of having someone thank you. (That’s bad, i’m owning up to it; whateva)

I think I would have done the first, and maybe the second – depending on how many other people were around mostly (not taking out my wallet in front of someone with no one else around, sorry). And I probably would have just bought him the ticket to his destination, rather than give him cash (although if he’s calling relatives like that, I would think chances are he’d actually use the money to go home?).

I have the same headphone problem, but as I get older I’ve realized the value of being aware of your surroundings, including hearing, and I listen to music less and less in public, or at least turn it farther down than I used to.

wearitcounts (#772)

i have friends who are train conductors, so at one point in time (before one of them gave me his ID and thus i ride for free now) i always had a stack of tickets in my purse that they would give me. i’d often give train tickets to people who needed them. and once when the rule was still in effect that a guest could ride free on sundays, when a random kid sat next to me on a sunday afternoon, i told the conductor he was with me and so he rode for free.

ugh one time I was getting on a bus at about 9pm, it was winter and it was dark out. Getting on at a college campus bus stop, the bus driver wouldn’t let the girl after me on because she put in a student ticket without having student ID. She gave the student a receipt for the amount of the student ticket and then kicked her off.

At the time I didn’t do anything. I’m not sure if I had a token on me or any money or what, but I just didn’t react quickly enough. I still feel awful about that. That bus driver was a complete and utterly unfeeling asshole in my opinion.

In the future I would definitely intervene and pay the rest of the fare if I could.

Vesna@twitter (#2,738)

I think I would have been helpful in those situations. At the grocery store, a lady didn’t have quite enough to cover her groceries. I and the lady behind me helped cover the rest. It felt nice. And, honestly, I hope that if this happened tome in the future other grocery store ladies would help me out.

Honestly, give money or don’t, but don’t…look, this is hard, I don’t want to start shit, but please don’t infantalize the poor or homeless by refusing to give money if you think they’ll use it on drugs, or whatever. First of all – you can’t tell. All you can do is speculate, based on things that you probably don’t have a lot of experience with, like crack pipe burns. People can be hungry and addicted and the addiction might have to be satisfied first. If you think of it as an illness and not a moral failure, it might be easier to accept that if someone looks enough like they need money that you think you might want to give them some, they’ll decide, assuming they’re an adult, what is best for them.

aisling (#2,864)

@Hiroine Protagonist For me, though, it’s the ethical question of not feeding/enabling addiction (which, I agree, is an illness, and being judgmental about it is just counterproductive). That’s why I’d rather buy food / hot drinks / warm clothing for someone who looked like they couldn’t afford it – because, as you say, you have no way of telling what any money you donate is likely to be spent on. So I wouldn’t be comfortable with taking the chance that I might be allowing someone to progress further into an addiction.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Hiroine Protagonist I agree. If I give someone money, homeless or a close friend or my mom, I am doing so with no strings attached. It is no longer my money. I am sure we all enable friends and family with all sorts of issues, so it’s not my place to judge how a homeless person is going to spend the money I give out.

aisling (#2,864)

@aisling I should have added, though, that I have an aunt who has a habit of forcibly donating pork pies to mystified homeless people. Probably best to make sure the person actually wants what they’re being given…when I was in college there was a homeless man who used to hang out in my local park and chat to all passersby. To have offered him food or whatever would have been pretty insulting to his dignity – he just wanted to talk to people on equal terms. But then I also remember the homeless lady with a baby who was delighted with diapers/jars of baby food. So, long story short – read the situation carefully – giving can be a minefield.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

Nice way to pay it forward! I have only been in the position to give change to people in front of me and that makes me feel good, so I can imagine paying the rest of a train ticket feels great. Good for Julie!
One time I dropped a dime that I needed to get a transfer and there was no way I was going to ask strangers for a dime. I was planning on staying in that train station searching the ground for change until I found ten cents but I was lucky and ran into my brother who gave me the change I needed.

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