PORTLAND – I first noticed people aggressively asking for money in the spring.
No, I’m not talking about panhandlers on Portland’s street corners. It was clerks at local stores, requesting that I donate to one charity or another at the checkout counter.
The first time it happened, I was purchasing a $4 bunch of daffodils at Shaw’s. The clerk asked if I wanted to give a dollar toward a cancer fund — or 25 percent of the cost of my purchase.
A couple of weeks later, a gas station attendant asked if I wanted to give $1 to St. Jude’s Hospital. I told him that I didn’t appreciate being hit up for contributions while making a retail transaction.
He replied, “Well, go ahead and be stingy if you want.”
That got me thinking. What is it that bothers me about those interactions?
Well, for one thing, I am a captive audience. I stop to buy daffodils or gas, and I am being put on the spot to make a donation.
In some ways, that is the same issue with panhandlers on Portland street corners. You’re driving somewhere, lost in thought, and all of a sudden you’re confronted with someone asking you for money.
“Steal a little and they throw you in jail,” wrote Bob Dylan. “Steal a lot and they make you king.”
The same principle applies to donations.
When homeless people ask passers-by for a dollar on the street corner, they’re considered a nuisance.
When fundraising professionals ask a wealthy person for several million dollars to support a college or an art museum, they’re often ushered into the corner office and treated with respect. Chances are that the donor will get a sizable tax deduction — so, in a sense, the fundraiser is doing him or her a favor.
There’s one commonality between all these forms of asking — on the street, in stores, in corner offices. People give to people.
We may ignore fundraising pitches that come in the mail or phone calls at dinnertime asking us to contribute. But faced with a fellow human being in need, we often respond.
Yet we are full of contradictions about when we consider it polite to ask for money and when it is considered rude or unacceptable.
When I register for a race online, I’m often asked if I want to make an additional contribution to the sponsoring nonprofit. That doesn’t bother me at all.
But when a store clerk hits me up for a donation, I feel as if a line has been crossed. The difference is that a human being waits for my response, forcing me to say “no” out loud and, in the case of the gas station attendant, judging me for it.
At the beginning of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye introduces the people who live in his hometown of Anatevka, including Nachum, the beggar.
“Alms for the poor! Alms for the poor!” cries Nachum.
“Here, Nachum, here’s one kopek,” says a villager.
“One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks,” Nachum says.
“I had a bad week,” the villager replies.
“So,” says Nachum, “if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”
That village had only one beggar, but we have many people begging on the streets of Portland.
While Tevye knew Nachum, we are confronted by people we don’t know asking for our help. When I see beggars who appear able-bodied, I can’t help wondering whether they really need to depend on the kindness of strangers.
Once, I saw a man who I knew living on the streets of Portland. He used to lead a middle-class life, with a wife, children, a career and a suburban home. It was shocking to see him disheveled and stumbling down the street.
I felt great compassion for that man, in a way that I don’t always for those who are unknown to me.
How do I reconcile all these conflicting thoughts about when to give?
First, I try not to lose my compassion.
Second, I listen to my head as well as my heart. Sometimes the most satisfying gift, handing money to a stranger in need, isn’t the most effective.
I prefer to give to Preble Street, an organization that works with homeless residents in a holistic way to solve both their immediate needs and the long-term ones.
These questions about giving are an essential part of life. I hope I never stop struggling with them.
Shoshana Hoose is a resident of Portland.