My $20 doubts

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The clanging at my gate was as insistent as the Jamaican heat that summer afternoon. "Dr. Rapley," ordered the voice. Dozing fitfully under a fan that felt more like a blow-dryer, I had neither the patience nor the energy for this today.

My shirt peeled away from my chair like wet wallpaper when I rose to go to the veranda. I recognized a face I knew from the ghetto: a menacing-looking young man, a bandage on his arm covering the evidence of an apparent knife attack.

"What do you want, Troy?" He did not catch my dismissive tone and approached. Instinctively, I looked down to see that the grill separating us was locked. "I've told you before, I don't want you coming to my house. You want to see me, you go wait for me at my office." He waved deferentially, and left.

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I wasn't surprised when I arrived later at my office and saw him waiting. "What is it now, Troy?"

"Doc, I need help. I want to get my license so I can get work as a driver."

"How much?" I interrupted, unimpressed that he couldn't come up with a better line to get money for a night out.

"A thousand dollars, sir" (about $20 US). I had half a mind to send him away. But he had recently become one of my "godchildren" - a term in Jamaica that refers to the poor children who "adopt" middle-class adults as substitutes for absent parents. Troy had landed in my lap after his own "godfather," a close friend of mine, had emigrated. Troy's expectations of me were somewhat legitimate: My friend had told him to come see me if he needed anything.

But another voice in my mind raised security concerns, both for myself and my family: "If the begging doesn't work, the knife will come out. Forget about loyalty. He'd probably cut up his own mother if there were money in it ... and if he still had a mother. Pay your protection money and be done with him."

Somewhere, buried beneath the cynicism and obscured by the competing voices, there was still a hint of compassion. Duty, if you want to put it that way - a sense that because he

was poor and I was not, I had to share with him. "All right," I said, "but only for a license." I expected the money to be squandered within hours.

I'm not as generous as I once was. Seven years in Jamaica - I'm originally from Canada - have toughened me. Or perhaps I'm more selective in my generosity. I rarely give to street beggars, who are believed by many Jamaicans to substitute begging for work. I reckon I do more good by focusing what I have on helping people educate themselves - paying school fees or buying books.

But other times, I suspect that the act of giving - money, advice, time - is the only good that will ever be done. In a country, in a world, in which the gap between rich and poor widens into a canyon, small acts of generosity are sometimes the only reminder that we won't allow those left behind to be forgotten.

A few days later, I was walking across the campus and saw Troy in the distance. He'd seen me. Too late to duck his next request for money. He reached out to shake my hand, unusually confident. I was about to ask what it was now, when he said, "Doc, I got through. I got the license and start work next week. Now, I'm really going to be able to help my family. I came to say thanks." My eyes must have said, "Go on," because he drew close and continued: "One other thing, Doc. Not many of you rich people take the time to listen to us poor folk. You always do. Thanks." And he left.

As he walked away, I felt bad for what I'd thought about him. But I took consolation in the knowledge that when all was said and done, actions, which perhaps followed their own voice, spoke louder than words.

John Rapley teaches political economy at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. He is also a journalist and writes a column for the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner. He is a visiting fellow at Georgetown University in Washington.

"Moral Dilemmas" is an occasional column that deals wit th conflicts we find ourselves facing in daily life. The Monitor invites readers to comment, suggest solutions, and submit their own accounts of moral dilemmas.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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