The other night I was on my way home from dinner with friends in Dumbo (a neighborhood in Brooklyn, for those of you who aren’t familiar, named for the acronym, “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” Yes, they just really wanted to name the place Dumbo.) Due to the vagaries of subway routes in our fair borough, this is always much harder than is should be. Despite that I don’t live far from Dumbo, it has one train, and I have one train on weekends, and the two don’t intersect — and on top of that there was track work on both lines, so neither was running where it should have been anyway. So, since it was around 10:30 pm on a warmish night, I decided to do what has become my default plan for Dumbo, and Citibike to my train — the only other real option being to take a cab, on which I was loathe to spend the 20 bucks.
I was going at a fairly decent clip when a woman flagged me down. She looked decently put-together, so I stopped.
“Thank you so much for stopping, you know, I’ve been out here for so long and you’re the only person who stopped!” she said with what seemed to be genuine urgency. “Can you help me? I need to Google roadside assistance.”
“Okay,” I said cautiously.
“See,” she said, the words coming fast and furious, “my car won’t start. My gas tank says it’s half full but I think there’s something wrong with it. It’s right over there.”
I started walking in the direction she pointed.
“I got the cops helping me but you see, they say because they’re a government agency, they’re not allowed to look up who to call.”
“No, they can only contact Triple A, and I don’t have Triple A.”
“Okay…And you said the cops are over there by your car?”
“Can you slow down please? Sorry, I’m in these heels, and I’m a woman, so I can’t hurt you.” She was a lot bigger than me, actually, but she wearing heels, and I was making her walk kind of fast, because I was realizing where I was: in a pretty deserted area near the Navy Yard and a bunch of projects. So I did slow down, but I didn’t stop walking.
“See, that’s the precinct right there.” She pointed to a building that did look like a police precinct, but it was hard to tell in the dark. “Please, I’m not one of them. I just need help and nobody would stop.”
“Okay, and, so…Why can’t the police help you?” I was still trying to make sense of this.
“Because they’re government officials, they can take me to get the gas can filled, but they can’t pay for it. See, that’s my car right there.” She pointed up ahead. There were a couple of cars, but there definitely weren’t any cops.
“I just need $8 to get over the bridge.“
That was when I realized that the story had changed, and now it was about money. She was just asking for money.
She must have seen my reaction to this because she said, again, “Please, I’m not one of them.”
I reached into my pocket. "If I have it I’ll give it to you.” I’d just paid for dinner so I knew I didn’t have eight dollars, I had two singles and 20s. But now I just wanted to get out of there, so I gave her a 20.
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome. Good luck.”
As I took off, my mind was racing back over the interaction. Had anything she’d been saying made sense? Was her first plan to take my cell phone and run? Or was that just the initial way to keep my interest? Or could she really have been telling the truth but just panicky and unsure what to do?
I got to a red light and I stopped. A guy was standing at the corner, also waiting for the light. He looked at me.
“I hope you didn’t,” he said.
I sighed. “I did.”
He shook his head. “Well you have a nice night.”
“You too,” I said.
So: I’d done the wrong thing. And this being my 24th year in the city, I should have known better. I should have known better than to stop and put myself in what wasn’t a safe situation in the first place, and I should have known better than to be taken in by someone with a story. Moreover, because what she said was so calculated and convincing, this woman had clearly gone through what the person who stopped would likely be thinking and how to get around it (“I’m a woman so I can’t hurt you”; “I’m not one of them”). In other words, she’d probably done this before. Maybe that just made her just a good con artist, but when it comes to con artists, junkies are among the best. $20 would buy a fair amount of drugs. So I probably hadn’t even helped her.
But what else could I have done? There are people who believe in absolutes: that you should never give money to people because you encourage a “culture of dependency,” which in my book is the conservative bullshit excuse to not give a damn about anyone else; or that you should always give to those who ask no matter what because you have more than you need, which I don’t believe either, because money isn’t always the best way to help people and I don’t need to soothe my conscience that badly. I look at each situation differently. Here was a woman asking for help, and I didn’t know that she wasn’t genuinely in trouble. All evidence to the contrary, I still don’t know for sure. So, wouldn’t I do the same thing again?
I’ve thought about this a lot this past week and played it out in my head every which way. I always obsess about things I’ve done and what I could have done differently, but I’ve also been on this track lately considering the intersection of games and movies and real life, where interactive media is heading and where I might be able to go with it. It’s had me thinking about the old text games I used to play as a kid, "Haunted House“ and ”Zork,“ and those ”Choose Your Own Adventure“ books, as well as new “games” by people like Nina Freeman and Auriea Harvey (like this one and this one), that take on real life scenarios that they want people to think about or experience interactively. In my head, most of the scenarios where I stop to help this woman turn out badly. The one that actually happened is perhaps one of the better ones from my perspective, because I only lost $20 and left just feeling stupid. From hers, I don’t know. If the money was for drugs, then perhaps I left her worse off, but on the other hand, if I hadn’t given her the money, what ultimately would have changed for her? And the ones where I don’t stop turn out badly too. If she’s telling the truth, she might be stuck there all night, or she might get hurt herself in that neighborhood. If she’s not, she’ll find someone else – and I’ll still feel bad for not stopping. And if I’d spent that $20 on a cab instead and never even passed her by, I’d feel bad for having spent $20 on that that I could have better spent elsewhere.
Overall in life, if we regret the things we should have done but didn’t, and repent the things we shouldn’t have done but did, I am way more filled with regret than with repentance. So, what was the right thing to do? What would you have done?