There’s a woman, maybe only ten years older than me, standing too far out in the road. Is she waiting to cross? No, because she is waving her hands at me, making eye contact in a way that pedestrians usually do not. I slow to a stop and roll down the passenger-side window a few inches.
“Listen,” she starts, her hands no longer waving but up in a I-mean-you-no-harm way, “I’m not a crazy person, and I’m not on drugs or anything like that. I was just a victim of domestic abuse, and I’m short seven dollars on getting me and my kids to the women’s shelter, and I’m asking everybody, and I just need seven dollars.”
“Oh-uh-yeah,” I stammer, “Let me see what I have.” I fumble through my bag and pull out my wallet. Two dollars. “Here,” I hand them through the couple inches of space between the window and the car roof. “But, do you need a ride?” I ask, suddenly conscious of my recently-found conviction to pick up hitch hikers. After all, if there is a need that I can help, I have a responsibility to do what I can.
“No, I’ve got all my stuff. I just need seven dollars,” she says.
“Hang on.” I reach into the console of my car and grab the mason jar where I collect quarters, usually used for parking and spontaneous chicken nuggets. I shake coins into my hand and begin counting out the remaining five dollars. I can’t tell how many are in my hand, so I end up passing them to the woman. “Here, count these.”
As she starts counting them in fours, I realize that my car is still in gear, although somehow I thought to turn the four way flashers on. I shift into Park.
What am I doing, making her count out quarters? Do I expect her to give the extra back? Is it not better to “default to generosity,” as my uncle counseled me last month?
Shamed, I pour more coins into my hand and pass them to her. Surely, that must be enough.
“Thank you, thank you. I just want to get me and my kids on the next bus,” she says, one hand holding the money, the other her phone.
I remember the man and the pizza and my failure last month. “Can-can I pray for you?” I ask, hardly hearing my own words.
She fumbles with her hands and frees one up the reach inside the window, and I catch it with mine. I ask her name, and we pray for comfort and God’s love as another car drives around us. When we finish, she thanks me again and walks away, one hand held up by her head in a gesture reminiscent of triumph.
I drive away, shaking a little. I think of my desire to volunteer at the women’s shelter, wondering if this might be the first step. How can I ever discover if she made it or not? No shelter gives out information regarding the people there, so I won’t be able to call and check. But then I remember I know people who go to work there once a week; I can ask them to keep an eye out for her.
But doesn’t seven dollars seem like a lot to travel the fifteen-minute drive to get to the women’s center? I do not use the bus at all, but it does seem a bit steep. I feel a bit sick. Did I just get played? I remember being instructed many times to buy someone food instead of simply giving them money, which can be used for drugs or alcohol or anything. We aren’t supposed to enable people. It doesn’t take more than seven dollars, surely.
But I correct myself. It doesn’t matter. I am not called to determine whether I am being played or not; my job is to be ready to fulfill the need. After all, isn’t there a women’s shelter in Pittsburgh, which would cost more to get to?
There is no way for me to know what she is going to do with the money, but I chose to believe that she was being honest. With no other information that what she told me and my own reading of the situation, all I can do is try to meet the need I see.