This question is posed to me every evening after work, as I stroll from the bus stop to my apartment. It always emanates from the same woman, standing by the same coffee shop, wearing her usual tattered Braves baseball cap, dirt-streaked tank top, and dusty pants that long ago may have been a crisp, shiny blue. I recall that her face, which I have ceased to look at anymore, gives little clue to her age. She has lived beyond my own years, but if she's 35 or 55 is anyone's guess. Her blank expression suggests a life that has left her too weary to complain.
My gaze drops and pace quickens as I approach her location. I mumble my usual "no, sorry," coupled with a slight shake of my head, sometimes even before she has issued her routine request. I always say no, and inevitably feel a sharp, fleeting stab of guilt. I wonder if she hears the change jingling in my pocket.
I try to rationalize away my remorse. How do I know what she'd do with the money? Perhaps my coins would only support an unhealthy habit or otherwise undesirable behavior. Anyway, should I really be giving money away to strangers when my own condition is hardly affluent? I quickly do some calculations. A quarter each day, five days a week, four weeks per month, 12 months per year, amounts to $60 that could just as easily go toward one of my monthly student loan payments. And if I give money to her, why not to anyone else who asks for it?
Why help this needy person and not some other one? "Because this one asked," an inner voice suggests. I don't listen.
I'm not always so unfeeling. Artists fascinate me, and I often toss ones or fives in the hats of street musicians, or to other performers who wow passersby with feats of magic or athleticism. I have no reservations there because I believe a legitimate transaction has taken place; they have earned my money. But this woman is different. She does not amuse, amaze, or impress. She simply stands there, asking for my help, and I walk past.
I find some comfort in the knowledge that I donate every Sunday at my church. When that little basket comes around, I invariably pull out my wallet. There I trust that my money is going to some worthy cause. I wonder, though, if this is also a kind of market transaction. Am I hoping that my regular contributions will win me points and eventually add up to a spot in the everlasting? I hope that even I am not so mercenary.
But my weekly donation is a transaction in another sense. By giving at church, I can feel that I am discharging my duty to society, but without having to come face to face with the need that duty serves. I can trust that someone else - a priest, a social worker, a volunteer - will take my money and do the dirty work for me. I'm buying a buffer zone from the bleak realities surrounding me.
But reality has ways of penetrating my defenses. Every evening after work, she whispers in my ear.
* Carlos Lozada is an economic analyst in Atlanta.