Sunday, March 23, 2008


As I was walking to the subway after teaching an evening class recently, I was stopped by a young-adult male. He began telling me a longish story about how he had come into town to stay with a friend -- only to find that the friend couldn't put him up, leaving him scrambling to raise bus fare home.

I had no cash on me, so my response was to tell the young man that I had no money and then point him toward a couple of shelters, within walking distance, that might be able to help him or guide him to help. At first he said, "That's no help."

As he was walking away, however, he shouted back, "Where's that shelter?"

It wasn't the first time I'd been approached by someone "looking for bus fare to get home." I'm assuming that these requests aren't all caused by one lousy friend who stiffs his house guests, but are instead a scam aimed at getting people to give money that will be used for something other than bus fare.

The practice apparently is as popular in Huntington Beach, Calif., as it is in Boston.

A reader writes that, as she was returning to her car one morning after grocery shopping, she was approached by someone who asked for change -- for bus fare home. The twist was that she was hearing this from a boy who looked no older than 12.

My reader usually doesn't give money to panhandlers, but she's a mother of three grown children and felt sorry for the boy. She gave him all the change she had on her -- but, as he ran toward the shops on the strip mall, she could hear change jingling in his pockets.

"He had a pocket full of coins!" she writes.

She sat in her car and watched as the boy entered a pizza parlor. She then followed him into the pizzeria, where she found him playing video games, surrounded by several friends.

"Shame on you," she said, and then asked him how he could lie about why he needed the money.

His friends snickered. The boy look mortified. And my reader, obviously a sympathetic soul, had second thoughts: Had she gone too far?

"What would you have done in my place?" my reader asks.

The question breaks down into ethical and practical components. On the practical side, I'd encourage her and all my readers to be cautious in confronting strangers. Making a point about right and wrong is important, but not so important as to be worth the risk of bodily harm over spare change.

My reader is, by her own account, "a very cautious person by nature," for which I'm grateful. There were many people around when she confronted the boy, so the risk was minimal.

On the ethical side, my reader need not fret over this encounter. She did the right thing in letting "the mother in her" get across to the boy that lying is not OK, no matter how much of a hankering one may have for the latest video game.

Would I have had the courage to confront the boy? I don't know. I'd like to think so. While it might not be the best way to teach ethical behavior, never underestimate the power of mortification on the adolescent soul.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I agree! The woman was right to confront the boy. He's only 12. It's possible for him to learn, and I was glad to read that he looked mortified. It won't do him any harm to feel mortified and in fact will hopefully do him some good.

Anonymous said...

Although potentially dangerous, this was both a great gesture and an opportunity for the woman to possibly educate the young lad regarding the implications of deceit. Perhaps, her actions will prevent the youth from initiating subsequent acts of deceit.

Patrick Bouvier Fitzgerald Burris, Charlotte, NC

Anonymous said...

It seems heartening that he looked mortified... but the adolescent peer group he did this as oart of may wll outweigh that. But as long as the "confronation" was done with lovve (yes, love) then it was appropriate.

(Point of order... we don't know he was 12 he "looked" 12.)

Studies lately have shown that cheating in school is now largely accepted. This is not good news... but it shows a lot of deficient parenting is going on.

Still, this lady did what she could.