Earlier tonight I was cycling home and had just pulled off the road to check my route when a woman came up to me. She put her hands up and told me she wasn’t going to attack me, I was a man and she was a woman, and that I “could kill” her. So this was already something of an odd conversation.
I don’t recall managing to get a single word out before she gave me the short version of her life story: she had several kids, one of whom was presumably an infant as she urgently needed to buy milk; she had some serious money problems, which was why she had approached me; and one of her children died two weeks ago, which had her feeling “pretty suicidal”. Put simply, she needed someone to cut her a break. So I took out my wallet and gave her all my change – something in the neighbourhood of £3.22.
Instead of offering thanks, she asked if I could buy her anything on card. I don’t necessarily need gratitude for being a decent human, but, well…she was asking two favours in a row from a complete stranger and putting me in a hugely uncomfortable position, so I declined apologetically. I told her I had to get home, which was both true and false; I needed to get home eventually, and I wanted to be home pretty soon (which in London is never as soon as you hope), but was there anything urgent I had to attend to? Nope.
Why was I okay lying to her, after she had poured her life and struggles into my mind? Was it because I automatically suspected her of lying even before she was finished speaking? Probably. I’m not sure at what point I decided that strangers requesting money on the street were automatically untrustworthy, but I know it’s not just me. I’m uncomfortable with that fact, just as I feel guilty when I ignore the existence of homeless people so I don’t have to pretend I don’t have any change to give them.
In the end (the whole interaction lasted about 30 seconds, I reckon), the woman left in a flash, resigned to the knowledge I wasn’t going to help her any more than I already had. When I looked back to see where she was heading, she had already crossed the road and was closing in on another potential Samaritan.
I don’t know if she was lying. I’d like to think she really did need the money, but if all of what she said was true then some loose change likely isn’t going to help her all that much. And I guess I don’t really know how to help people in those situations beyond giving them the contents of my wallet.
If I had just done as the Google Maps lady had said and made that right turn when I was supposed to, I might never have seen that woman in my whole life. Maybe interactions like that – or just the possibility of them – are why I choose to bike to work instead of getting the train most days. Why I wear headphones when walking alone in the street. Why I’m reluctant to answer the phone when I don’t recognise the number.