To the Black Man in the White Parka

Dear Tony,

I don’t like getting stopped in the street and asked for money. It’s uncomfortable because I have some and for all I know you don’t. You were polite, and your face was earnest and compelling. I told myself to keep walking, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that another human was addressing me so directly and so personally. You said “I’m really sorry, but can I ask you for some spare change?” I said “No” but instead of walking on I turned around to explain. I didn’t want you to think I was heartless, and something about you kept my feet rooted to the pavement. It’s easy to pretend not to see someone who mutters “spare some change please” from a corner of the sidewalk, they could be talking to anyone. But you were standing there in your white parka jacket and looked straight into my eyes. You said you were 44, didn’t have a job, and could use some money. I took out a £5 note and gave it to you. The only thing worse than being asked for money is pouring out pennies from your purse and awkwardly offer 76p, knowing you could be more generous.

Instead of moving on you continued the conversation, eager to show you weren’t just a guy asking for money. You showed interest in the book I was carrying, and told me you have a son my age. You also mentioned that you do drugs, and my heart sank. I’m not judging you, and I appreciate your honesty, but I hope that you don’t use the money I gave you for that… When we shook hands and parted ways I asked myself if I had just been manipulated. What was it about me Tony? Did I look wealthy and naive or just young and approachable?

I don’t feel good about being charitable because I was reluctant to part with that £5. I can’t figure out what bothered me most, the fact that I gave you in one minute what took me an hour of washing dishes to earn, or the fact that £5 is a mere drop in my oceans of savings. I could have given you everything in my wallet and not felt the difference, and I’d walk home to an apartment full of food where I live rent free. You see Tony, I find myself needlessly worrying about money, and when you worry about money there is never enough. I have saved for years using the excuse of a down payment on a flat to justify my scrimping. Pretending to be poor has been a self-indulgent exercise made worse by the secret satisfaction of having thousands of pounds locked away. I used to think money made people complacent, and that you have to starve before you’re hungry for success. Somehow, I couldn’t justify frittering away my savings, so I pretended it wasn’t there as I continued to work long hours for minimum wage in order to convince myself I knew the value of money. If I begrudged you £5 I clearly haven’t learned my lesson yet.

Love Lili

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