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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: To give, or not to give at North Station

Published: September 3, 2010
Section: Opinions


I had just gotten off the train when I saw him. He wore a Boston Red Sox jersey, a white one with red piping, just like the ones the players wear during home games. He had a Red Sox cap, too. It was dirty and frayed around the edges, and looked like it hadn’t been taken off in years.

He looked like most of the other people who crowded Boston’s North Station. And yet, he managed to stand out. He didn’t join the rush of people trying to get to the stations T stop, nor did he sit among the passengers waiting to board their trains. Instead, he hovered around the ticket booth area, as if waiting for something.

I was heading over to put some money on my Charlie Card when I saw what he was doing. As people went to buy their tickets, he approached them, asking if they could spare some money for his ticket. He wasn’t having much luck. An elderly couple smiled awkwardly at him, but said nothing. A young business professional rushed past without stopping, his eyes glued to his Blackberry screen. A teenager, who hadn’t even bothered to take out his earbuds, shook his head and then quickly proceeded to buy his own ticket.

He took each rejection calmly, without saying anything to the passersby. Then, probably because I hadn’t taken my eyes off him, he came over to me.

“Hey, buddy,” he said. “Do you have a couple bucks? I don’t have enough for my ticket.”

He looked even worse up close. His face was unshaven. His Red Sox shirt hung like a dress over his surprisingly skinny frame. He looked extremely tired—like he had been sleeping on the street, even—and I found myself reaching into my pocket.

“How much do you need?” I asked.

“Two, maybe three bucks.”

I had three dollars floating around. I gave them to him.

“Thanks buddy,” he said. “Thank you. God bless you.”

I’m sure some of you are thinking: “Bret, you know you were probably scammed, right?” Indeed, most of us have been taught—either explicitly or by the examples of our family and friends—to ignore strangers who ask for money. After all, we are told, these people could be lazy bums who don’t want to work, or worse, drug addicts who are just looking to support their habits. The fear that strangers are trying to take advantage of us is a rather pressing one, which is why it is far more common to see people ignore these strangers than to see them stop and open their wallets.

Of course, it is true that some of these strangers will misuse the money they are given. But there are no statistics, to my knowledge, that can conclusively prove that all have ill intentions. To assume so is to punish those who actually need help, especially in a tough economy.

“But Bret,” comes the cry from the peanut gallery. “If people are needy, they can go to homeless shelters and have a place to stay. And they can go to soup kitchens to get something to eat. There’s no need for them to ask us for money; others will take care of them.”

This is true, but only if you ignore the fact that many homeless shelters are becoming increasingly crowded these days, limiting their effectiveness. And soup kitchens are not always open. I spent many weeknights volunteering at a local soup kitchen during high school. The place closed on Saturdays. Believe it or not, people still need to eat on Saturday.

Regardless of what others do, we still have a responsibility to take care of each other. Many, many years ago, a probably fictitious but nonetheless important literary character was once quoted in the biblical Book of Matthew as saying: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And he wasn’t the first, nor the last person to say something along those lines. It is a common lesson that applies to all people, regardless of beliefs. Nobody can safely assume that they will go through life without ever needing help from others. So, how can we justify ignoring those who may need help right now?

Perhaps someday it will be me wandering around North Station, lacking my wallet and running out of time before my train departs. Which is why I didn’t worry about my money as I watched the man in the Red Sox shirt melt into the crowd, presumably heading toward the ticket booths. Whoever he is, I hope it served him well and that he got wherever he needed to go.