Neighbors Comic Series Landing Page
Part 1: Discomfort
Part 2: Distance
Part 3: Sympathy
The story in this chapter really did happen around the same time as I got new neighbors sleeping in a tent across the street. And there were even more stories Leon told me during our brief exchange.
That moment of being asked for help in the street is always so immediate and so fleeting. Maybe that's why it can feel so confusing and awkward and hard -- especially if you do want to help but don’t know how.
Upon reflection, here are some more/other stories I might’ve used in this section…
”Sorry, I don't have any change."
It slips out of my mouth so easily. It's almost a reflex to anyone asking for money on the street.
"Spare a dollar?"
"Sorry, no change."
With a shrug and a small smile, we both move on.
One day I was waiting for a bus downtown when I was approached by someone asking for change, and the sentence popped out of both myself and the woman sitting next to me who was engrossed in her phone. Before she returned to her Instagram feed, she looked over at me conspiratorially: "A good excuse not to carry change around anymore, huh?"
Not gonna lie: I do this. It does make me feel better to be able to say "no change" if I actually don't have any change on me.
As if I'd help you if only I had any cash on me.
I’m walking back to work after lunch with a co-worker, and this woman starts asking us for help. She seems distraught and rushed and worried. She really needs to borrow $20 because she and her kid need to take a taxi down to the shelter in another area. Her ex, who was put in for domestic violence charges, just got released today, and she’s worried he’ll come after her. She needs to move now; he was released at noon. She just found out. She just needs twenty dollars. Anything will help. She’s running out of time.
Having no cash, my colleague offers to call her an Uber on the spot from his phone. She has to go get her kid first, though. He offers that he’ll be driving down South thataway after work, and if she wants, she can call him and he’ll personally give them a ride himself. She really just needs the cash.
He gives her his phone number.
She takes it. She leaves distraught and rushed and worried.
And as we walk the rest of the way back to work, we can’t decide whether we hope that her story was true or not. Would it be better if she was fine, and wasn’t actually in a tight spot, and had just been lying to get some cash out of us? Or would it be better if she were telling the truth?
When I was visiting Cambodia with a friend in 2007, we were constantly approached by street kids, who were pretty aggressive with their asks.
“Give me money,” they were saying,
“You’re American, and tourists, and have money to spare.”
“Let me sell you this cheap trinket for a dollar.”
I remember feeling mad and frustrated and confused.
There’s a Chinese word 呃 ngaak1, which means something like to cheat someone. This is the word that kept coming to mind.
These kids are trying to 呃 ngaak1 me.
I was barely out of college and not making that much money (certainly not as much as many of my peers).
At the same time, I was able to afford a backpacking trip to Asia.
And at the same time, what is a dollar? We were SO well off compared to everyone here.
Who owed whom what?
From Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking:
There is a difference between simply “being able to ask” and “asking gracefully.”
Sometimes asking gracefully means saying less.
Or saying nothing.
You can move your mouth to ask, but what is the rest of your body saying? What is the message behind the words? Everybody knows how it feels to be asked in a way that creates discomfort, whether the asker is a drunk homeless person on a street corner or the naked person in bed besides you.
Can we have sex? It’s been a month.
Could you spare any change?
Both can be asked with a sense of trust and graciousness, or with a sense of force and gracelessness.
Anthony once told me: It isn’t what you say to people, it’s more important what you do with them. It’s less important what you do with them than the way you’re with them.
Growing up in Houston, there were people who would stand at stoplights with buckets of soapy water and squeegees. As soon as the light turned red, they would pounce to start washing your windshield right away. My mom would always groan and try gesticulating wildly to try to get them to stop.
Classic bait and switch.
Now you feel bad if you don’t give them any money.
Still, the worst thing I would see is the person who would start running their automatic wipers and spraying washer fluid as the person approached.
Nonviolent communication talks a lot about distinguishing between an ask and a demand.
From What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication by Judith Hanson Lasater and Ike K. Lasater:
Some years ago, we had a direct experience of how powerful conscious speech can be in the world. One Sunday, Ike and I and a longtime friend were walking toward church in a neighborhood where a number of people were asking passersby for money. One such person approached Ike. This man was as tall as Ike (about six feet five) and was acting in a way that we defined as aggressive.
Ike and I had talked many times about what we would do in case something like this happened. So, according to our agreement, I took our friend, a four feet ten woman, and myself across the street to safety, so Ike could deal with the man without worrying about us. I quickly turned around to watch what was happening and dialed 911 on my cell phone without pushing “send.” While I could not hear any words spoken, I was able to see clearly the body language of both my husband and the man.
The man was leaning in toward Ike, eye to eye, and was asking, I later learned from Ike, for money. Ike often gives money to people on the street, but he remembers that he did not want to give any money to this man, coming as it was from what he interpreted a “demand” energy. At this point Ike remembered that he had the tool of NVC. He said something like, “I’m feeling afraid with you so chose; would you be willing to step back?” The man moved back and asked again, with one of his clenched hands thrust forward at about waist level. In response, Ike began to give the man empathy about the “guessed” need to be respected and to be seen and heard. After this second round, the man leaned further back.
A third request for money was met with more empathy, and this third time the man leaned back even more, so he was standing in the yoga asana Tadasana (Mountain Pose), which is standing with awareness in a perfect vertical line. I observed this alignment and closed my phone, my fear for Ike’s safety melting away. When one is centered in Tadasana, there is no aggressive urge; one is fully present.
A fourth round of empathy followed. After Ike gave this empathy, the man leaned over and put his head on Ike’s shoulder, with tears in his eyes. Only then did Ike offer the man money. Ike felt he had now “chosen” to give the money and was not being coerced. Thus both Ike’s needs and the man’s needs appeared to be met at that moment.
The interaction had begun as a potentially violent situation and had ended within a couple of minutes with connection and compassion. This incident cemented in me my dedication to learning and practicing compassionate communication for myself, my family, and the world. Ike and I still remember this incident with gratitude.
I’m thinking of the times you carried leftovers out of a restaurant -- not because you wanted them, but because you're hoping someone on the way home will take them.
I’m thinking of the times you unloaded boxes of donuts and bagels into the Tenderloin after a hackathon.
I’m thinking of the times you used to stash extra granola bars in your car to be able to hand them out at red lights.
I’m thinking of your friend who always carry bottled water in her car for this purpose.
I’m thinking of another friend who always tries to carry change around.
I’m also thinking of the person who will say hi and start a conversation with those asking for money.
(…which we will get into next week in Chapter 4.)