On the last day of 2009 a man on the street asked me for money. It’s not unusual in Long Beach, but I recall this encounter vividly because immediately afterwards I wrote about it for the Long Beach Post, wrestling with the question in light of our encounter, in which the man presented himself as regretful and humiliated at being a victims of circumstances that forced him to beg for a few dollars so he could take some food to his wife and young child, with whom he was holed up in a local motel because a fire had devastated their home, and effusively thanked me for the three dollars I handed him.
“Was I being had?” I wrote. “I have no idea. I don’t pride myself on being a great reader of people. Whatever the case, I once again found myself wrestling with the question that overarches any situation of this type: When to give, and how much?”
Today I no longer wonder whether I was being had, because now I know that I was. And I know because last month, just a mile away from our 2009 meeting, the same man approached me with exactly the same story—the fire, the motel, the wife and child, the desire only for food.
Initially I didn’t recognize him, but as soon as he started in on the story, there was no room for doubt. As I let him take me through the sad tale, welling up with tears exactly as he had four years earlier and presumably has done thousands of times since, my heart raced. I did my best to repress a smile as he handed me a Veterans Administration ID card to backup part of his story. “CULLEN, BOBBY JR,” it read, a deep crease in the plastic obscuring the pictured face. The VA stuff I recalled; the card was a new touch.
Any second now, I thought, he’s going to be on to me that I’m on to him. But I had the advantage: I’d been told this story only once, and only by him (and written about it, of course), whereas he had given this performance to thousands of people over the ensuing four years. Besides, what were the odds?
In tears he made his plea, and I handed back the card. “You know, it’s funny,” I began. “It was December 31st three or four years ago—I don’t remember exactly—when you stopped over by the Library Coffeehouse over on Broadway.” “Is that in California?” he asked. That stopped me for a moment. I almost said, “Nice touch,” but I wanted to get to where I was going.
“Yes,” I smirked. “And you know that. Because you told me exactly the same story, with all the same details—the fire, your wife and kid, being a veteran, asking for food.”
“That’s impossible, sir,” he said. “We came to town 11 days ago.”
“Look,” I said, smiling now, “you can do this performance all you want, but you know and I know what this is.”
“You must have me confused with someone else,” he said, beginning to walk away but seemingly unable to let the act go. “Have a nice day.”
“Hey, man,” I said, almost gloating, “I see you. You can’t fool me, and you can’t fool yourself.”
The mask was starting to slip at this point, his combination of artificial indignance and genuine embarrassment almost palpable. “Not all Black people look alike,” he said, backing off down 4th Street.
“That’s true,” I laughed. “But I’m talking about you, a shameless guy trying to scam people out of money with a bullshit sob story. Bobby Cullen, Jr.—if that is your real name.”
“That’s not what the card says,” he barked, reminded me very much of myself as a mendacious child desperately trying to deflect my interlocutor away from a lie in which I’d been caught. “That’s not what the card says. Want to look at it again?”
“That’s okay, ‘Bobby.’ I see you. See you around, pal.”
“Yeah,” he said, now simply angry. “Keep smiling. That’s a pretty good smile for a White guy.”
He turned on his heel, and I laughed and watched him, then turned away to sit for a bit on a nearby bench. But I was up a minute later, annoyed at myself for not snapping a picture. I guess during the exchange it would have felt too brazen. Plus, how often in life do you live out telling someone off exactly as you would have hoped? I couldn’t chance ruining the moment. But now I wanted a visual keepsake. I walked back to the site of our encounter and cast my eyes up 4th Street: he was nowhere to be seen.
I read the words painted on the building at the site of my second meeting with “Bobby”: Raise us above the differences and distinctions that divide us. Lots of ways to take that if you believe the universe talks to you. I’m more of a non-believer, myself. But I’m all for the haves and the have-nots finding the common root. I’m a big fan of transcending all those bad binary relationships: rich-poor, giver-taker, scammer-scammed. Humans on both sides of these divides would be better off if humankind managed to dissolve them.
Probably we can’t, not completely, but that doesn’t mean we as individuals can’t raise the net level of humanity by playing our small parts: working to minimize both avarice and abject poverty, giving where we can and taking only by informed consent, not running scams on others and exposing those who do.
Attention all human units: Be on the lookout for man, African-American, late 40s, 5’10”, lean/healthy, neat in appearance, completely bald (head most likely shaved), possibly carrying a Walgreens bad, cries on command, telling a sad tale of a house fire and a wife and child back the motel, he really hates to ask, he’s a working man, he’s never asked for anything in his life, but if you could help him—in any way—get some food for his family. Answers to the name “Bobby,” though there is reason to believe this is not his real name.
Also be on the lookout for genuine opportunities to help—in any way—those less fortunate than you, those truly in need. When we are raised above the differences and distinctions that divide, there will be no looking down on anyone.